Giuseppe Verdi - Les Vêpres Siciliennes
Royal Opera House, London, 2013
Antonio Pappano, Stefan Herheim, Lianna Haroutounian, Bryan Hymel, Erwin Schrott, Michael Volle, Michelle Daly, Neal Cooper, Nicholas Darmanin, Jung Soo Yun, Jihoon Kim, Jean Teitgen, Jeremy White
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 4 November 2013
It was a little bit disappointing to discover that Verdi's famous 'Four Seasons' ballet sequence had been cut from this new production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes, only now being performed at the Royal Opera House in the original French version for the first time. Stefan Herheim is usually such a thorough director, meticulous in his construction (and often reconstruction) of works, examining them from every level from their subject matter to context and subtext. Surely Verdi's 30-minute long ballet forms an important part of Les Vêpres Siciliennes?
On the other hand, there's a good reason why the ballet is often cut even on those rare occasions that the original French version of the work is put on. There are Grand Opéra mannerisms aplenty in the five acts of Les Vêpres Siciliennes, perhaps too many for a modern audience to endure. As it turns out however, Stefan Herheim doesn't actually shy away from the challenges of incorporating the ballet but rather cleverly finds an alternative and rather more acceptable means of including it. Paying careful attention to the music as always and recognising that all of the themes that are brought out in the music of the ballet are there also in the heart of Verdi's remarkable scoring for the work, he includes ballet elements throughout the length of the opera itself.
Those themes, which are condensed within the Four Seasons ballet sequence, are all to do with the changing of the seasons, with life and death, the past, history and politics involved, and how they weigh heavily on families and individuals caught up in momentous events. Verdi's take on grand opéra is extraordinary, the composer making the most of the opportunity to expand his range and take expression in his music much further than before. He weaves these themes dynamically together, finding depth and subtext, suggesting much more than is evident on the surface. Herheim rather fearlessly tries to break these themes down again and find a way to express each of them visually. And, in his own inimitable way, he throws a few other ideas in there for consideration. Despite all this, Les Vêpres Siciliennes surprisingly proves to be a relatively straightforward Herheim production.
Principally, Herheim does what he often does - he brings the composer and the creation of the work into the work itself. What's interesting about the way it's done here however is that it manages to avoid all the usual Risorgimento trappings. The political climate and Verdi's part in the revolutionary activities of the period (often overstated) evidently form a part of it, but the director here is more interested in Verdi in Paris, Verdi writing Grand Opéra, the period, the venue and even the work's place in opera history. Accordingly the most immediately distinctive part of the staging is that it's an opera within an opera. Les Vêpres Siciliennes is played out with the French audience of 1855 taking the place of the French soldiers in 13th-century Sicily, with the interior of the Paris Opera house forming a backdrop and ballet dancers on the stage dressed like those in paintings by Degas.
That sounds like a lot of unnecessary baggage to add on top of the work itself, but Verdi's choice of subject for the French audience is an interesting one and worth exploring since it undoubtedly informed the creation of the work. Arguably it's even more important since Les Vêpres Siciliennes is primarily an opera and not history, the story cobbled together from a libretto for Donizetti's unfinished Le Duc d'Albe which had a 16th century Dutch historical setting. The reason it works so well in this production then is due to another of Herheim's strengths - his ability to make the characters come to life and his use of space on the stage to reflect their personalities and situation, opening up and closing down, only using what is necessary for impact and always finding a way to get that impact across at the right points, if not exactly in a conventional manner. And marshalling diverse forces to make a necessary impact is what opera is all about.
That isn't something that Verdi himself always manages in Les Vêpres Siciliennes. As fascinating a work as it is coming at this period in the composer's career, it is a somewhat imperfect opera. The production and the singing can help, but even they are limited in this particular production. The first two acts in particular are not entirely successful, even though Herheim attempts to establish the prologue to the story in the overture, where Henri's mother - here a dancer at the ballet school run by Procida - is raped by one of the French soldiers, Guy de Montfort. Hélène then appears dressed as a vengeful woman in black, mourning for the loss of her brother Frédéric, carrying his mummified head around with her, waving it accusingly at the French soldiers with the officers sitting behind in the best opera box seats.
Despite some remarkable writing and a powerful account of the score from Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House orchestra, the first two acts can't seem to bring any kind of coherence or purpose to the structure in which the events are laid out, and they consequently come across as rather flat. The last thing you need at this stage then is a 30-minute ballet on top of it, so its omission at this point is clearly justified, particularly as there is no shortage of ballet dancers on the stage throughout, and their significance - some wearing white tutus, others black - has been well established in the prologue. All the stops are pulled out however for the impact that the personal situations and events of the past bring to Acts III to V.
Yes, there's glorious music throughout, but even in these latter acts there are traps that could bring the whole thing down, particularly in the unsatisfactory conclusions reached in Act V. Herheim however takes full advantage of Verdi's orchestration of these developments, making powerful use of the choruses that represent the masses of the soldiers and the people, and the people against the soldiers. You can feel in them the sense of simmering nationalist resentment, but because of Herheim's direction, you can also understand the complicated personal issues of the past and the family connections that have been brought into it all which more significantly influence the outcome. It's in high melodrama territory certainly, but Herheim works with the intimacy of Verdi's writing to make it feel real and vital.
It has to feel real and vital as far as the singers are concerned also, and by and large, this was successfully achieved. There was some concern expressed by Marina Poplavskaya's dropping out of the production at the last moment and some opinions expressed that Lianna Haroutounian wasn't a strong enough replacement, but I thought she performed marvellously. Her Hélène didn't make so much of an impression in the opening acts, but her character gained in strength and personality after the interval, and Haroutounian rose to meet those demands. Bryan Hymel again proved himself well suited to this repertoire particularly as the role of Henri is considerably less punishing than Robert le Diable. Michael Volle was a solid threatening presence as Montfort, the role sung with characteristic nuance and warmth from this performer. Erwin Schrott is also a performer with great personal presence and sang very well, but he seemed a little too laid-back as Procida. Herheim's mastery of the work however and Antonio Pappano's conduction ensured however that everything came together perfectly to achieve the kind of satisfying and powerful conclusion than the work really needs.