Opera showing a good local cultural opportunity

By Gary Clift

The recent replay at our local movie house of a stage production of an opera gave me several opportunities.

I had never seen one of the Opera in Cinema or Ballet in Cinema productions except live, often at odd times (10 in the morning here is curtain time at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London). I loved the 2 o’clock, Sunday afternoon showing time of Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani as it was performed in the Theater Royal of Turin, Italy.

I also liked not having to wait out the long intermissions favored by the Bolshoi and other hosts of the live shows which arrive in Manhattan via satellite. In the replay, we went straight from second act curtain to third act action. This kept the total show time down to a few minutes over three hours.

The occasion also gave me a chance to see something at the Torino opera house, a good-looking contemporary auditorium with curving rows of red padded chairs. This production, at least, was first class, with a huge on-stage company of good singers, actors, and dancers, a large and very well-rehearsed pit orchestra led by the fiery Gianandrea Noseda (who, like some other conductors, favors the Nehru jacket), and some terrific-sounding principals.

Then too, this production allowed me to see the opera most often sung in French and known, then, as Les Vepres Siciliennes. This is a middle period Verdi opera in the French “grand opera” style. The score makes Verdi’s characteristic full use of a baritone, in this case Franco Vassallo as Monteforte. It begins with a rightly admired and lengthy overture, and while that played, credits appeared on the screen just as if we were about to see a Hollywood movie.

So sitting in America, I watched a big screen version of “I Vespri Siciliani,” an opera written by a nineteenth century Italian about the thirteenth century occupation of Sicily by French military forces. This version, the staging for which was co-produced by opera companies in Norway and Spain, was severely contemporary—which is to say its costumes and settings looked as if they would have been current anytime during the last forty years.

There was, however, an even more up-to-date feature of the production, the reliance on television. Big screens took up much of the back wall of three of the five sets. We saw camera teams working on-stage during crowd scenes, and saw interviews and, later, speeches as they appeared on the upstage screens, while we were watching on a movie theater screen half a world away from the live action.

The reason the TV stuff made sense was that the story has to do with national politics. It follows Sicilian Elena, the sister of a Duke recently executed by Governor Monteforte. The tyrant, as he is often called in the not always idiomatic subtitled translation of the Italian singing, has also set free Arrigo, another local patriot pledged to return local rule.

Arrigo (the tenor) and his fiancee Elena (the soprano) meet with revolutionary Procida (the bass) as he arrives on a beach littered with car bodies and backed by a sea wall on which graffiti has been spray-painted. Together with a group of natives, they agree to rile other Sicilians by encouraging the half-mask wearing French soldiers to abduct pretty native girls for a big party.

But before the kidnapping can set off a reaction, Arrigo is taken to Monteforte who proves he is Arrigo’s father. All the rest of the action depends on Arrigo’s unwillingness to act against his father, no matter how tyrannical the guy is, and on Elena’s inability to cross Arrigo once she knows his family motivation.

The Opera in Cinema series gave me a chance to see this well-performed and intriguingly contemporary production of I Vespri Siciliani, and to do it all briefly, at modest expense (opera tickets are $25), and without having to leave the confines of Manhattan. I’m happy to have had the opportunity.

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