Les Vêpres Siciliennes
Royal Opera House
Verdi's Vêpres at Covent Garden, with Schrott, Volle and Hymel
© Bill Cooper 2014
It seems surprising that London's Royal Opera House should only get around to performing Verdi's Vê̂pres Siciliennes as late as 2013, but such indeed is the case. Written for and given its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1855, the work enjoyed sixty-two performances in its original season without going on to establish itself as a permanent fixture of the local repertoire. It was never one of the composer's more popular works in any venue, and the work's already limited initial appeal took a further dip with the general decline in the reputation of the distinctively French form of grand opéra during the late nineteenth century.
The work has since been more frequently performed internationally in its later Italian version as I Vespri Siciliani, with major stagings in the U.K. in productions given by Welsh National Opera (1954) and English National Opera (1984), both sung in English. Covent Garden went back to the French text for its belated local premiere (seen Oct. 21), in a visualization staged by the acclaimed Norwegian director Stefan Herheim, making his U.K. debut in conjunction with his regular designers, Philipp Fü̈rhofer (sets) and Gesine Völlm (costumes), alongside his lavishly credited dramaturg, Alexander Meier-Dö̈rzenbach.
The latter was allowed five pages in the program booklet to discourse on Herheim's production to a public that has traditionally been skeptical about the value of Regietheater and the employment of dramaturgs — suspiciously German-sounding words to pragmatic English theatrical ears. Impressive though the breadth of Meier-Dö̈rzenbach's intellectual understanding of the background to the piece was, as displayed in his article, the audience was presented with yet another production that transferred the action of an opera to the place and period of its premiere — specifically the Paris Opera of 1855. Given the lavish nature of the staging and the vivid theatricality of much of the stagecraft on display, it might seem ungrateful to point out that this approach in itself is almost as much of a cliché as setting the action in Palermo in 1282 would have been — and arguably more so.
The overture thus formed a substantial dumb-show in which the French soldiers, led by Guy de Montfort, roughed up the female corps de ballet, with German baritone Michael Volle's Norman governor of Sicily specifically raping one of them. Their ballet-master, meanwhile, was attacked and seriously wounded: limping throughout the rest of the production, he turned out to be Uruguayan bass Erwin Schrott's Procida. Later on, a small boy waving a wooden sword stood in for Montfort's son, whose adult form would be represented by U.S.-born tenor Bryan Hymel in the opera proper. Unnecessary, if undeniably cleverly staged, this small drama gave notice of the level of hyperactivity that would be evident throughout the show, and of the centrality of ballet dancers to Herheim's vision in a production that aimed to embody "a struggle between artists and those who use and abuse art." This, of course, was Herheim's theme, not Verdi's or his librettist Scribe's; they, rather, had focused on the complex interactions within and between individual human beings caught up amid wider issues of territorial occupation, freedom-fighting and/or terrorism, as emblematically represented by conflicting groups of medieval French and Sicilians. Here, composer and librettist became almost secondary creative figures in their own opera, with their concerns sidelined.
The opera contains four demanding principal roles. Originally scheduled to sing that of the Duchess Hélène, who leads her Sicilian people in their resistance to the French in the absence of her previously executed brother, was Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya. Due to illness, she had formally withdrawn from the production's final rehearsals and its first three performances, yet she suddenly reappeared for the second performance (the one under review), by which point Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian, who had stood in for Poplavskaya on the opening night, was apparently ill herself and consequently unable to take part.
Poplavskaya sang with appreciable commitment but with a voice often in disarray, its registers poorly integrated and some high notes either flat (a general problem) or missing; overall it was a brave stab at a role the singer seemed not sufficiently well to be able to deliver convincingly.
Bryan Hymel threw himself at the equally challenging tenor role of Henri, with conspicuously more impressive results. Lasting the long evening without tiring, he seemed ready for any eventuality Verdi could throw at him, and he was also admirably caught up in the drama, though necessarily Herheim's rather than Verdi's.
Michael Volle's solid baritone held equally firm throughout the role of Montfort, though his is not an instrument with a great range of expressive color. Swaggering manfully through his assignment, his enriched bass-baritone as glamorous as ever, Schrott gave Procida the lyricism appropriate for his well-known aria, "Et toi, Palerme" and the vehemence needed for much of the rest of the role of the fanatical Sicilian patriot. Antonio Pappano conducted with his customary sympathy for Verdi's style. Despite the prevalence of dancers on the stage, the lengthy ballet Les Quatres Saisons (originally announced as part of the production) was not performed.
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