Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes (in French)

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LABELS: Opera Rara
WORKS: Les vêpres siciliennes (in French)
PERFORMER: acqueline Brumaire, Jean Bonhomme, Neilson Talor, Ayhan Baran, Stafford Dean, Neil Howlett; BBC Chorus, BBC Concert Orchestra/Mario Rossi, Ashley Lawrence
Verdi’s first entirely original work written for the vast forces of the Paris Opéra is the 1855 Sicilian Vespers, which had limited success in its own day and even now remains one of the most neglected of his mature scores. When it is performed, it tends to be in the standard Italian translation, rather than original French heard here. This represents the first official release on CD of a BBC performance, given live in 1969, which presents the score complete, including the substantial ballet music. It’s well documented in Opera Rara’s excellent booklet. The score itself is vintage middle-period Verdi, rising magnificently to the challenges of grand opera in the French tradition. The tense plot sets personal and inner conflicts within the larger canvas of a medieval Sicily smouldering under French occupation and eventually bursting into full-scale rebellion with the closing massacre, signalled by the ringing of wedding bells. Verdi responds with a succession of masterly arias, duets and big ensembles, superbly expressive, meaty and dramatic by turns. The performance may lack star names but a healthy sprinkling of Francophone singers in the main roles ensures textual credibility. Mario Rossi’s conducting is assured, though it could do with more electricity. Both Jacqueline Brumaire’s medium-weight Hélène and Jean Bonhomme’s Henri are stylistically accomplished, while Ayhan Baran’s characterful Procida and Neilson Taylor’s purposive Montfort command attention. Slightly distant sound, but nevertheless a valuable addition to the Verdi catalogue. George Hall