Mediated power: I vespri siciliani at the Palau de les Arts

Verdi – I vespri siciliani

Arrigo – Gregory Kunde
Elena – Maribel Ortega
Montforte – Juan Jesús Rodríguez
Procida – Alexander Vinogradov
Bethune – Andrea Pellegrini
Vaudemont – Cristian Díaz
Ninetta – Kato Nozomi
Danieli – Moisés Marín
Tebaldo – Andrés Sulbarán
Roberto – Jorge Álvarez
Manfredo – Fabián Lara

Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana / Roberto Abbado.
Stage director – Davide Livermore.

Palau de les Arts, València.  Friday, December 16th, 2016.

The production photos have not yet been made available.  As soon as they are, I will send update the review. 

For his staging of I vespri siciliani, the stage director and intendant of València’s Palau de les Arts, Davide Livermore, took his inspiration from current day politics as he outlined in an interesting note in the program booklet.  Written at a time when ‘man went from being a subject to a citizen’ [my translation], Livermore sees the emancipation of the people against the elites as key to understanding the work.  In a year where we have seen a referendum and an election apparently won on false premises, this approach seems all too pertinent.  Livermore describes the time in which we live as a ‘mediated dictatorship, that is foreseen with false news, false politics and false economics’ [my translation].

As the curtain rises, we see the funeral of Elena’s brother broadcast live on TV, filmed by camera operators and projected to large screens on the stage, thereby making it clear that everything elites do is mediatized.  Likewise, in Act 5 Elena sings ‘mercè, dilette amiche’ off a prompt sheet – literally being told what to say.  Control is therefore created and maintained by broadcast media.  I found this a pertinent and interesting idea and one that is certainly most compelling.  Yet the downside was that we didn’t quite know who the French and Sicilians were and what was a story about a conflict between nations became a domestic tragedy as Arrigo comes to terms with who his real father is.  Despite this small reservation, I found it a valid and convincing reading of the text.

Livermore also created notable stage pictures.  He’s a very visual director and as Procida entered, alone, through the mist, the effect is striking.  At the same time, I found personenregie to be perfunctory – far too often characters just addressed the front with arms outstretched and I longed for the singers to depart from stock operatic gestures.  In a way, Livermore’s staging is a letter of affection to Italy, a country that when the staging was new in 2011, was living with its own hyper-mediatized, ‘bunga bunga’ Prime Minister.  As the chorus sang the rousing Act 3 finale ‘ah! patria adorata’ we see images of Italian history projected on the back of the set reminding us that Italy is a country that has contributed so much to western civilization and has lived through a lot in its relatively short history.

Vocally things were somewhat mixed but there were some world class performances there tonight.  Alexander Vinogradov was a very notable Procida, making his presence known in his glorious number ‘o tu, Palermo, terra adorata’ with a massive bass voice of genuine depth and beauty.  He has an attractive fast vibrato and the sound itself is wonderfully healthy.  His legato is nicely smooth and emissions are always even.   Only 40 this is a voice that will surely bloom even further.

Gregory Kunde continues to inspire enormous respect in his vocal Indian summer.  He gave us an absolutely ringing top and one felt completely secure in his impassioned vocalism.  He shaded his big Act 4 ‘giorno di pianto, di fier dolore’ with great care and affection.  One is occasionally aware of the effort needed with aspirates being inserted into the line to leapfrog up to the top but the security and generosity of his singing gave a great deal of pleasure.

Juan Jesús Rodríguez is an interesting singer and certainly is a very useful Verdi baritone.  It’s a compact sound but one was never aware of him pushing it or ever singing outside his means.  The tone itself has a handsome graininess though it discolours and perhaps lacks support at the very top.  Maribel Ortega was a replacement for the scheduled Anna Pirozzi who withdrew due to pregnancy.  The Spanish soprano is certainly a warm and generous stage presence and clearly very game.  She has a nice full middle but the top can be squally and she seems to lack the cutting power to ride the ensemble.  Her lack of a genuine trill meant that she got through ‘mercè, dilette amiche’ on sheer willpower alone.  Her Elena was certainly honestly sung and in the closing pages she pulled out some thrilling theatre-filling high notes that had previously been absent.  It was a worthy stab at the role but the technique seems inconsistent.

The remaining roles were well taken by members of the Palau’s young artists’ program.  As always, the highlight of any visit to this fabulous theatre were the house forces.  They really do rank among the very best in the world.  What defined their performance tonight was the unfailing accuracy and precision in everything they did.  What a pleasure to hear a string section that can play unanimously in tune.   The brass was sensational and the entire band sounded absolutely on top of their game.  The chorus, free of the unbearable war of vibratos and ragged ensemble one hears elsewhere, sang with fresh, theatre-filling tone.  The unanimity of their ensemble inspired enormous respect and they were completely unfazed by some quite swift tempi.  I found Roberto Abbado’s conducting curious.  Tempi all felt exactly right, stage-pit coordination was excellent and yet I felt there was something lacking.  I’m not quite sure I can put my finger on it other than to say that perhaps it needed to have a little more rhythmic impetus.  That said, everything was absolutely there and it was lovingly phrased.

Tonight we were given a splendid evening at the opera.  We had a thoughtful production that engaged with the work and made it feel extremely pertinent to the difficult times in which we live.  Vocally it was a bit mixed but certainly Vinogradov and Kunde gave a great deal of pleasure and we were introduced to a very useful baritone in Rodríguez.  As always here, the chorus and orchestra really were superlative.  If València isn’t yet on your list of operatravelling destinations I most humbly suggest that you add it.

The Palau de les Arts. Photo: © Craig Cormack
The Palau de les Arts. Photo: © Craig Cormack

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