07/09/2013 05:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Les Vȇpres Siciliennes at Caramoor

Five-act French "grand" operas are a puzzle. They were of a time and place, and very popular indeed in that time and place, namely early- to mid-19th century Paris. Staging them in our time and place in their original form hasn't always been easy. They were quite long, and required at least one extended ballet sequence. They required highly skilled bel canto singing and an understanding of the musical style and genre from the singers and the pit. And they were in French, for goodness sake!

Verdi was no dummy. He wanted to join his countrymen Donizetti and Bellini in raking in l'argent creating new audiences for his works. Five-act French operas are now proving profitable for modern companies that can produce them, because opera fans ranging from cognoscenti to curiosity seekers come from far and wide to hear and see them.

On Saturday, July 6, I ventured to northern Westchester County to enjoy one of Mr. Verdi's French masterworks, Les Vȇpres Siciliennes, at the Caramoor Festival. Often, upon hearing neglected works, I can tell you why they're neglected, and might even suggest that neglecting them is not a bad thing. Not so with Les Vȇpres Siciliennes. Oh, I can talk about the difficulties of mounting an opera like Vȇpres (unless you're fluent in French, just say "vep"), even in the four-act Italian version I Vespri Siciliani, but I would never suggest performing this opera any less. Quite the contrary -- I want to see it produced much more! But this opera is very much a star vehicle. If only there was a major opera house nearby in the habit of producing rarely performed operas to feature popular divas!

Angela Meade Photo credit: Devon Cass
The diva I heard singing Hélène in Vȇpres was the lovely Angela Meade, no stranger to readers of my blog Taminophile. In the past I have praised Miss Meade's bel canto singing -- her legato, her even scale, her dynamic control, the drama she can infuse into her singing. It pleases me to say I heard all of this in her performance on Saturday. I recently suggested she sounded a little tired when I saw her perform Norma on stage at the Kennedy Center (the last performance of a long run), but I heard no such fatigue in her Vȇpres. While her top in the first act might not have had all the warmth it achieved in the remainder of the very long opera, I still call it a very fine performance vocally. I do wish Steven Tharp, director of Saturday's semi-staged performance, had elicited more of a consistent appearance of involvement from Miss Meade.

Tenor John Osborn was Henri, Hélène's love interest, in this typical 19th-century story of political oppression and uprising, forbidden love, and scheming of every sort. (All that's missing is a baby on a bonfire.) Mr. Osborn has long been a favorite bel canto tenor in European houses, singing even the highest Bellini roles with a sound fuller than your typical tenorino. He is now branching out into beefier bel canto roles -- and although it's Verdi, I'd say Henri qualifies -- allowing the color and fullness that typically comes with middle age to infuse his still very high voice. (Although his website lists Elvino in La Sonnambula as his next engagement, it also lists Pollione, Hoffmann, and Werther in coming months.) Mr. Osborn's performance was impassioned and full of vocal warmth and beauty of line. He received well-deserved roars of approval at the curtain call.

Marco Nistico Photo credit: Dan Demetriad
Because a soprano needs a bass to talk to, we enjoyed Burak Bilgili as Jean Procida. His bio lists many admirable accomplishments, and on hearing his highly skilled singing I am not surprised. He gave his role the required menace as a political conspirator and warmth as friend and advisor to Hélène. And because a tenor needs a rival, we also enjoyed Marco Nisticò as Guy de Montfort, French governor of Sicily. We also learn, as he does, that he is the father of Henri, his political and romantic rival. I first saw Mr. Nisticò as Dulcamara in the 2011 New York City Opera production of L'Elisir d'Amore. I liked him even more as Montfort, very much admiring his beautiful singing and his clear portrayal of Montfort's conflicting emotions.

As we have come to expect, Will Crutchfield drew a very fine performance out of the Orchestra of St. Lukes. The orchestra was awarded thunderous applause for its sensitive playing with singers and for the ballet interludes (not omitted, as one might have expected).

Minor roles were quite capably filled by Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists and Apprentice Artists.

Not one to waste an afternoon of sweltering heat, my opera-going companion and I also attended open-air lectures and concerts Saturday afternoon, including excellent lectures by Mr. Crutchfield on the singing style of the French Romantic period and Mr. Tharp on Les Vȇpres Siciliennes specifically. The concerts included Italian composers for the French operatic tradition dating back to the late 18th century, as well as French contemporaries of Verdi composing for the Paris Opera. Among the many standouts in these concerts I include bass-baritone Joseph Beutel, who sings beautifully and can trill (although he looks like he's about 12 years old); tenor Noah Baetge, whom I saw last season singing the Verdi Requiem rather well at Carnegie Hall; and mezzo Jennifer Feinstein, who, with Mr. Baetge and tenor Cameron Schutza gave us an affecting trio from Mr. Donizetti's rarity Élisabeth.

Complaints? Very few, aside from the heat and legendary uncomfortable seating at Caramoor's Venetian Theater. Almost worth the discomfort to hear and see an opera new to me that deserves to be a hit parade opera, sung very well, and presented with great enthusiasm and skill.