At first blush, Giuseppe Verdi's rarely performed "I Vespri Siciliani" seems a curious choice for opening the Washington National Opera's gala Golden Anniversary season. It's long and expensive to mount. Its sometimes unwieldy libretto has not won many partisans over the years. And its lead characters often seem like pawns in a plot run completely amok. But the music is heroic, the arias luminous, and the choral work often spine-tingling.
The WNO's new production of "I Vespri" at the Kennedy Center's Opera House dusts off an innovation from the company's recently concluded Constitution Hall exile -- projected sets -- repackaging the concept with stunning effectiveness. Paolo Micciche, who created the company's inventive productions of "Aida" and "Norma" during this period, literally frames his characters and projected imagery in three gigantic gilt picture frames you'll never find at your local Michaels. And Alberto Spiazzi's sumptuous costuming adds the right touch of pageantry.
"I Vespri Siciliani" ("The Sicilian Vespers") recounts a little-known 13th-century Sicilian revolt against tyrannical French occupiers. Amid a confusing backdrop of intrigue and betrayal, the romance of Arrigo, a revolutionary, and Elena, a duchess bent on revenge, slowly unfolds, thwarted at every turn by the brutal French governor, Monforte, and the implacable Sicilian hero, Procida. Both Republicans and fans of HBO's "The Sopranos" will delight in seeing the French get seriously whacked in the opera's martial finale.
With Placido Domingo ably conducting the opera's massive forces, this "I Vespri Siciliani" is a masterful production. The powerful choral numbers are superbly choreographed and brilliantly sung by the large mixed chorus. The dance intervals are short but charming. And in the main, the opera's primary soloists set a high standard for the rest of the season.
The most impressive performance on opening night belonged to Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow as Procida. He is a real rival to such world-class singers as Sam Ramey and Alan Held. Unlike the American bass-baritones, however, Mr. Kowaljow is a true bass, one of the most difficult and thankless vocal roles in opera, frequently buried as it is in the fabric of the music, or overshadowed by the other soloists.
Verdi provides Procida with some of the opera's most stirring arias, as Mr. Kowaljow proved right off the bat during his impressive hymn to Palermo, which opens the second act. Well supported and with a laser-like intensity, his clear voice negotiated Verdi's difficult demands, effortlessly providing the audience with one of the most deeply satisfying performances by a bass in recent memory.
As the conflicted Arrigo, tenor Franco Farina also was at the top of his game. Arrigo is called upon to emote at an extraordinarily high decibel level, which can be taxing to audiences and singers alike. Mr. Farina was nonetheless able to imbue his role with considerable subtlety while avoiding obvious straining at the opera's frequent climaxes.
In his slightly smaller role as Monforte, baritone Lado Ataneli also sang well, although his intonation seemed occasionally to miss the mark.
Perhaps the most mystifying, uneven performance of the evening was by renowned soprano Maria Guleghina as Elena. She seemed to be holding back in the first act. Her intonation was at times faulty or muddled. And she momentarily lost her place at the beginning of Elena's showy Act V wedding aria, though she concluded it quite nicely. Was Washington's murky, moisture- laden weather partially to blame? Often, it is hard to tell.
Nonetheless, WNO's "I Vespri Siciliani" is a welcome addition to the company's repertoire, the kind of musical treat that companies should insert more often into seasons so often dominated by old war horses. Variety is the spice of life, even in opera. Hopefully, audiences will step up and endorse somewhat risky but musically rewarding adventures like this one.
WHO: Washington National Opera
WHAT: Verdi's "I Vespri Siciliani"
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House
WHEN: Tomorrow, Thursday, Sept. 28, and Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25 at 2 p.m. and Oct. 1 at 7 p.m.
TICKETS AND INFORMATION: Call 202-295-2400 or 800-876-7372, or visit www.dc-opera.org
MAXIMUM STAR RATING: FOUR STARS