The Met’s revival of Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani is a true period piece. Not the work itself so much, although this five-act tragedy presents the 1282 revolt of Sicily in typical grand-opera fashion. No, the artifact here is the 1974 production, the debut of director John Dexter, whose chilly approach to the standards dominated the Met stage for a decade.
And this Vespri is a very ascetic affair. The set, designed by Josef Svoboda, is basically one long staircase to nowhere, all cast in stern black-and-white. Dexter’s blocking is a marvel of clarity and design—the clash between Sicilian patriots and French forces couldn’t be made more explicit—but it becomes monotonous, more like a clever geometry demonstration than imaginative theater.
This puts the four principal singers at a disadvantage, especially Sondra Radvanovsky, whose attractively reedy voice and expressive shaping indicate a Verdi soprano of real potential. The three men never manage to cut through the gloom, although the baritone Leo Nucci, as Monforte, could give everyone onstage lessons in style and vocal preservation. Not so Samuel Ramey, whose once-glamorous bass now wobbles, or Francisco Casanova, a portly Arrigo with a tenor as ungainly as his stage presence. Frédéric Chaslin’s limp musical direction doesn’t help much. I Vespri Siciliani is definitely a problem, but one well worth solving if the Met ever decides to take a fresh look.