Saturday, October 26, 2013

Guest reviewer EB on Les Vêpres Siciliennes

Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London, First Night (October 17th 2013)

This was the Royal Opera's main contribution to this year's Verdi celebrations, although I confess I booked at the last minute owing to a cast change. Notwithstanding, there had been much excitement in the run up to the premiere. Not only was this the first—yes, first!—production of the piece at Covent Garden, but also the London debut of Norwegian-born directorial Wunderkind Stefan Herheim, whose productions have been feted around Europe for some years now, as recently as Die Meistersinger in Salzburg this summer.

Michael Volle (Guy de Montfort) and Bryan Hymel (Henri) in Les Vepres Siciliennes.
Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
Vêpres is a strange Verdi opera. Firstly, it is structured as all commissions of the time for the Paris Opéra, in five acts with a ballet in the third, and a libretto in French (by Eugene Scribe). Huge plaudits to the Royal Opera for performing in that language, for the piece's unique sound world relies on the language to shape the lines quite differently from his Italian works. At times one could be listening to Meyerbeer, or Gounod (especially the large set-pieces); elsewhere, and perhaps especially in Act 4—a series of virtuoso arias, duets and a glorious quartet to cap it all—it is unmistakably Verdi. But it can feel a clumsy, incoherent work, even when the half-hour ballet of the seasons is missed out, as here, rendering the middle act strangely short. I suspect more readers will be familiar with the Italian version (I Vespri Siciliani) but as with Don Carlo/Don Carlos, the French libretto truly unlocks the treasures which may otherwise lie hidden.

I was expecting to be surprised, perhaps shocked or indeed perplexed, by Herheim's production. I was certainly shocked although mainly by his breathtaking stagecraft and surprisingly coherent dramatic rendition of the piece. Taking the reasonable view that a period setting of 12th Century Sicily would not speak loudly to a London audience of today, he and his team—Philippe Fürhofer (sets), Gesine Völlm (costumes), Anders Poll (lighting), André de Jong (choreography) and perhaps most importantly of all Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach (dramaturge)—have devised a different scenario altogether. We find ourselves at the Paris Opéra around the time of the work's premiere. Broadly, the Sicilians are represented by the 'artists', most of all the female corps de ballet often seen rehearsing at the barre, with the occupying French as the audience or aristocracy. The battlefield, then, is art—its ownership or patronage—rather than a war torn Sicily of yesteryear.

Erwin Schrott (Procida), Lianna Haroutounian (Hélène), Bryan Bymel (Henri).
Royal Opera House/Bill Cooper
The piece describes a semi-historical occupation of Sicily in the 12th Century; Montfort is the tyrannical governor, who raped a Sicilian woman and fathered Henri, a Sicilian freedom fighter, himself in love with Hélène, a noblewoman whose brother was executed by the French a year before the opera begins. The last key figure in Procida, Sicilian commander exiled after a wounding by Montfort's forces in the period before the start of the action.

There is no shortage of detail in Herheim's direction, and he establishes his scenario and visual language during the (splendid) overture, where Montfort graphically rapes a 'Sicilian' dancer after the maiming of 'Impesario' Procida in the ballet rehearsal room. Henri is the child of that encounter and his pregnant mother and childhood self appear throughout the rest of the production in various guises.

Fürhofer's virtuoso designs are breathtaking, moving seamlessly between the stage, rehearsal room and auditorium of the opera house, often extending the horseshoe of Covent Garden's own auditorium deep into the stage. A mural depicting a pastoral Sicily with a furious Mount Etna appears at various points, and 'Royal' observers appear in the stage boxes watching the 'action', or taking part in it in the arena below. Herheim's command of the stage space is masterful, the huge ensembles are formed with a rock steady directorial hand, and De Jong's balletic choreography is seamlessly integrated into the action with a skill I have seldom seen before. Herheim describes his approach as stemming from the music first, the words second; his direction here is very responsive to the musical colours in the score.

Inevitably there are details that jar. The constant abuse of Hélène's brother's death mask is one example, and I can't entirely fathom why Procida appeared in drag to begin the slaughter at the end of Act 5, gamely as Erwin Schrott frocked up. Act 4, where Verdi produces his finest music, is the production's weak point, the principals seemingly left to their own devices and often resorting to stock gestures. It's hard to know why this is, as the 'stage' setting may have led Herheim to encourage 'stagey' body language. An alternative explanation may be a lack of rehearsal time and some last minute cast changes (see below). The finale is a bit of a mess, the bright lights shining out into the auditorium amid general disarray onstage a bit of an anticlimax. It may, though, be beyond the wit of man to make credible drama of the material Verdi provides here.

Act 1 Scene I. Royal Opera House/Bill Cooper
Quibbles aside, the staging provides a veritable Smorgasbord (sorry—Herheim is Norwegian) of food for thought, as well as much genuinely stunning stagecraft. Most of all his team confers coherence to a sprawling piece which badly needs it. Worth seeing, possibly seeing again, I think, and a significant house debut.

For such a vast work it is perhaps surprising that there are really only four principal roles. None of the comprimario parts stands out although they were adequately sung in this production. The sung French is ranges from poor to adequate with much variation. Above all, it is an evening for the men, as low voices predominate. The standout performance for me was Michael Volle as Guy de Montfort, both tyrannical baddie and wannabe father to Henri. Volle commands the stage from the outset, and brings generous tone and a striking command of Verdian style. Looking at his roster of roles—Wagner, Strauss, Verdi, Puccini—fills me with admiration for what a versatile singer and actor he is, fully justifying what may have felt like a casting gamble. The other low male voice is the Procida of Erwin Schrott. A big hit with the house, he too has plenty of tone but to my mind sings too frequently out of tune. His preening, grandstanding stage presence may well be Herheim's doing, although I still feel he could have made more vocally of his big aria at the start of Act 2.

Verdi and Scribe don't do many favours to the lovers Henri and Hélène; once Henri discovers he is the son of Montfort, his impossible situation can't really be resolved, leaving him dramatically high and dry from Act 3 onwards. Furthermore, it's an excruciatingly difficult sing, frequently venturing higher than most Verdi tenor roles but requiring a robust dramatic sound. Covent Garden did well to cast Bryan Hymel, who added this bravura performance to his growing list of successes in London and elsewhere. Utterly secure and often thrilling, he was terrific. Pedants will note that he ducked his high D in Act 5 but only the truly misanthropic would hold it against him.

Hélène is another hugely challenging sing, requiring a spinto soprano with flawless technique, nimble coloratura and a true command of Verdian line. Marina Poplavskaya was cast in the role some years ago, to my mind rather optimistically, and as the production drew near there was a repeat of Robert Le Diable last season, namely late-stage withdrawal due to illness. The rumour mill has been in overdrive regarding the nature of her illness and the likelihood of her returning to sing after the first three performances. These were instead given to Lianna Haroutounian, who made a great success of her appearance as Elisabetta de Valois in place of Anja Harteros last season, and who has sung Hélène (and Elena) in the past. She has a very attractive, dusky timbre and is a Verdi specialist - every phrase oozes the requisite style. But she did not repeat her previous success on this occasion. I suspect a combination of nerves and fatigue explains why she was defeated by her arias in Acts 4 and 5. However, she remained a musical, appealing heroine, almost but not quite the equal of her colleagues. And she was unflatteringly costumed throughout. [Stop Press: Haroutounian was unwell on the second night and Poplavskaya took her place, not to rave reviews; on the third, both were indisposed and Rachele Stanisci sang from the side of the stage. Covent Garden plays Find the Lady!]

We already know that Sir Antonio Pappano knows how to conduct Verdi, and his performance here justified the company's revival of the piece. Most exciting of all were the set pieces, the chorus (significantly augmented) on cracking form. I don't share the unmodified rapture of some critics, as some tempi seemed too swift (especially the Act 4 quartet—but he kept the unwieldy juggernaut on the road and kept what dramatic tension Verdi allows to be created at the forefront.

The verdict: viva Verdi, in your anniversary year; your Vêpres are not a masterpiece, but they have made it to London in grand style. And for that, molto grazie.