This production was a big success when mounted in Parma in 2010. The blu-ray is superbly done and should disperse any doubts about this work. Stage director Pier Luigi Pizzi uses an approach he has used before but never so successfully: he updates the action to the 19th century, to the period of the battles over the unification of Italy, and uses the theater's auditorium as an extension of the stage. This idea is far from new, but I never saw it done so effectively. The "breaking of the fourth wall" enables Pizzi to achieve a miracle of sorts: a minimalist staging with some of the Grand Opera effects that Verdi had in mind when he wrote this work for what was the largest opera theatre in the world at the time.
For example, in the opening scene there are only three boats on an otherwise empty stage, and French soldiers make fun of and provoke the local Sicilians. Then Daniela Dessì (Elena) makes an electrifying grand entrance from the back of the auditorium. Clad in black and veiled she creates a charged dramatic field that spans the entire house, with one pole being the stage and the other the back of the auditorium. She glares eloquently at the unseemly pranks of the French on stage with a dignified, aristocratic disapproval and slowly approaches them, her imposing demeanor dramatizing her grief and subdued rage. The fantastic video direction by Tiziano Mancini shows us her grand entrance as perceived from the stage by the leering French; the shameful behavior of the French as perceived by the disapproving Elena, and Elena's slow, subtly menacing progress towards the stage as perceived by the audience. The combination of dynamic camera work, imaginative staging and Dessì's impressive charisma and acting skills create a thrilling theatrical effect. Add the sound engineers who created a sonic marvel that gives us a soundstage and ambiance that correspond exactly to where we see the singers/chorus in the house (with a realistic projection), and you get a gripping experience. There isn't a single moment that is less than completely riveting in this production for its entire duration.
I had my doubts when I saw the cast list (regarding the tenor and soprano), but overall they all give superlative performances. Dessì gives a commanding performance with her unique, rich timbre, a total artist, a modern Grand Tragedienne. The score has a lot of dynamic markings that call for soft singing ("mezza voce", "dolce", "dolcissimo", "p"; "pp", etc.) and she has a full command of a superb mezza voce (light singing). The forte side of the piano-forte spectrum is subdued - the Diva economizes her vocal resources, which is understandable, considering the challenges ahead. The role's more than two octave range is a walk in the park for her, as is the coloratura agility that reaches its first-half peak in the short cadenza of her act II duet with Arrigo "Presso alla tomba ch'apresi", with its long trill. Now for the nitpicking: the role's demands gradually increase in the second half. Her act IV "Arrigo! Ah parli a un core" is overall superb; she manages the first two of the cadenza's descending scales, but they are just a warm up for the third, which she glides over rather than really touch the notes (but she does the trill). Caballè (and many others) did the same thing and no one complained (but no none glides like Caballè). So how is her act V bolero? How do you think? It's no better than it was in 1996 in Rome, so it's far from perfect, but if you consult the score you see that her only difficulty is to sing long lines composed entirely of sixteenth notes figurations à-la-Rossini fast enough (no, she does not interpolate a final high E...Jeezus!). But it's a big show and her elegant style and artistry are of the highest caliber. With Pizzi's help it's also a scene of simple, aching beauty and with the sound engineers' help it's almost a miracle, the way they capture the back and forth between Elena on the stage and the chorus in the auditorium. When it ended the audience paused for three endless seconds that made my blood curdle ("are they really going to boo her?...") before a "brava" ushered in the applause.
Armiliato usually sounds like he constantly sings on all his capital and forces, probably because if he didn't we'd hear just a generic voice without a distinctive timbre. I always think he wouldn't last when I hear the forcing, but last he does and he knows exactly what he's doing. You need to forget all his previous performances, he is a huge surprise - it's the best I've ever heard him, I did not dream he has it in him. His tone is beautiful in a way I never heard before, his high Bb's and B's ring securely, he doesn't fudge a single note including rapid coloratura figurations, his phrasing is elegant and his soft singing seductive. Act V "La brezza aleggia intorno" (after the bolero) is cut, so no high D for the tenor (IIRC, some of the repetitions of the concluding act IV concertante are mercifully cut as well, and no ballet). On opening night he got into vocal problems in the second half and was announced indisposed before the second performance, from which most of the material for this blu-ray was taken. He bowed out from his last scheduled performance, so we are lucky to have this Vespri at all, because the replacement was not up to snuff. To be honest, I don't think Dessì and particularly Armiliato could have pulled it off in a bigger house, Vespri is truly scary for the tenor and soprano. It took a lot of courage for them to take on these roles.
Giacomo Prestia also offers his best performance so far in the Tutto Verdi series (he also sings in Ernani and in I Masnadieri). Nucci offers great finesse, style and power - he is a reference in many Verdi roles. I don't think there is a better Monforte on record, other than his earlier assumptions of the role. I heard him in this role at the MET when he last sang at the house in 2004. I pulled out a souvenir from that run and realized in retrospect that this may have been the greatest operatic performance I had the good fortune to attend.
The chorus is more than first rate. The musical direction of Massimo Zanetti (who also conducts Rigoletto in these series) overcomes the difficulties of singers and chorus scattered throughout the house with superb detail, precision and attentive accompaniment. The entire cast (particularly Dessì) seems giddy at the curtain calls - they overcame a supreme challenge and the audience is vocal in its gratitude (there is even a final cry for an encore!). The recording engineers deserve a standing ovation: Paolo Berti, Michele Ruggiero, Alessandro Marsico.
This is a Vespri for the ages and if you are still not convinced about the place this work deserves in the canon you are totally doomed and there is no point even talking about it.