Les Vêpres Siciliennes has had something of a bumpy run, not dissimilar to the last relative rarity that the Royal Opera pulled out of the bag (Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable): casting became increasingly fluid as the première and the first couple of performances went on. This threatened to overshadow the much-anticipated debut of director Stefan Herheim and, indeed, the performance of a piece not seen before at Covent Garden.
Marina Poplavskaya had been slated for the Duchesse Hélène, but came down with something before opening night. In time to update the programme cast page, Lianna Haroutounian stepped into the first three performances. She came down ill before the second show, to be replaced by a partially recovered Poplavskaya. After that, with both sopranos back on the sick list, Rachel Stanisci was drafted in and sang whilst Haroutounian acted. Ahead of the fourth show, Alexandrina Pendatchanska was flown in just in case, although in the event Haroutounian was recovered sufficiently to sing, which she also did on the night I was there.
Whether through the production (of which more later) or the performances, the work itself didn’t particularly make an impact with me. I shall continue to enjoy an occasional listen to the Bolero from Act 5 and to use the overture as a good piece to which to march purposefully through tube stations. I don’t think I will be actively seeking out repeat visits to the whole opera. Acts 1 and 2 seemed flat and listless, like Verdi couldn’t quite find his voice. Act 3 cranked up the tension a bit, mercifully shorn of its half-hour ballet music. Acts 4 and 5 took rather longer than necessary to resolve the relatively straightforward storyline, with the heroine’s shift into ‘happiness mode’ for the wedding preparations (and back again!) rather clumsier than we’ve come to expect from Verdi of this period and later. Herheim’s production shifted up a notch as well, and so all manner of bells and whistles kept us mildly distracted.
Michael Volle as ‘Governor’ Guy de Montfort and Erwin Schrott as the rebel-leader Procida were the two most consistent cast members. Volle made much of little with his Act 3 scene in which he agonises about discovering his son to be a Sicilian rebel (it called to mind ‘Elle ne m’aime pas!‘ from Don Carlos, but on a considerably less powerful level). Schrott toned down his usual tendency towards audience-pleasing antics, but still delivered a sharply characterful portrayal of the role, in line with Herheim’s vision.
He was also the most consistently full-volume of all the participants, not necessarily a good thing in itself, but very noticeable relative to the two leading roles. Haroutounian was barely audible for Acts 1 and 2, and Bryan Hymel as her lover Henri also seemed to struggle to register. She picked up in Act 3, and seemed to much more of a presence in Acts 4 and 5, although she had been unfailingly interesting to watch throughout. Her Bolero in Act 5 was graceful rather than particularly effervescent, but she put across well the confusion and torment of being trapped between conspirators and her love interest. By the end she was on the form that had so impressed when she jumped in for Anja Harteros in Don Carlo, but it had taken rather a long span to get us there. Hymel also rose to some impressive heroics, again fully exploiting some rather uninspired material in Act 4, his back-and-forth anguish seemingly set to music that was the inspiration for every silent movie climax.
Massed choruses swirled regularly around the shifting monumental sets, and sang lustily, even if they frequently sounded slightly detached from the orchestra. I don’t know if Pappano’s approach contributes to my feeling of it taking an age to ‘get going’, since I don’t know the piece well, but what I did know (the Overture, principally) I thought was given a good combination of sensitive dynamics and lusty climaxes, registering only a slight concern that those closing brass passages were rather wilfully ‘chopped up’. Not sure what that might herald for the flow of the opera itself: certainly, the act closing climaxes all appeared to be wrung for all the thrill they had in them.
And so, the production. There was an all-pervasive concept, founded on the fact that the Sicilian Vespers incident, supposedly of 1282, didn’t actually happen. Therefore, as Herheim explained at the Insight Evening, this raised questions about just how important it was to retain a non-historical, ‘historical’ setting. The piece appears to suffer from its composer trying to bend his talents to an unfamiliar, possibly even antithetical, set of demands. Structurally, the flow seems at odds with the musical ‘voice’. Are these the conventions – nay, requirements – of the French grand opéra at work, constraining and curtailing Verdi’s customary dramatic insight and judgment? Taking ballet as symbolic of all of this, Herheim seems to be alternately sending up and laying bare the obsession with superficial beauty and grandiose structure and length. The narrative almost isn’t supposed to work, because in the grand opéra tradition it rarely does. The form has overtaken and subverted the content.
Well, that’s the best interpretation I can come up with. Monumental sets of opera house galleries and curtains contained all of the action, in which troupes of dancers frequently appear to decorate or to actively shape the scene. In Act 5, Procida (a ballet master) uses the fleur de lys atop a flagpole bearing the French flag to massacre most of the chorus, one at a time, albeit very musically. He’s just changed out of a rather fetching off-the-shoulder black ball gown at this point, complete with red sparkling embroidery, the reason for which is not entirely clear (McVicar Faust, anyone?). Again, a best guess is that he is now the flip side of Hélène’s ‘goodness’, expressed through her similar white gown and with a number of ‘mirroring’ gestures. The opera opens with a pantomime sequence, set to the Overture, showing the rape of a ballet dancer by Guy de Montfort, setting the scene for the later discovery of Henri’s parentage. The focus on the dark forces encircling the glitzy mid-19th Century Paris Opéra is set out from the start – Herheim’s dramaturg referred to it as Paris’s grandest brothel – and again, Herheim’s target appears to be the undercurrents that wash round a superficial appearance of beauty and truth.
This could have been intensely irritating, but somehow it wasn’t. Partly, this is because I don’t really think there is a truly great work submerged below the directorial conceit (c.f. Bieito’s Fidelio). It is also because the stagecraft and panache with which it was accomplished were streets ahead of many such ‘reimaginings’ (and certainly Bieito). There was never nothing to see, to think about and, of course, to hear. Lighting and set changes were (a few clunkings and bangings aside) always atmospheric. The chorus was well-directed. The sets lived up to the scale that they were clearly trying to achieve: there was an unusually confident and audacious use of the wings and back of the stage (which may not have been appreciated by restricted view seat-holders). It was trying to be monumental in order to send up aggrandised operatic expectations, and so it had to wear its monumentality with bravado, which it certainly did. I didn’t really care about any of the characters, but I am content to accept that that may not have been the point. I do care about the art form, and on that there was some witty and elegant commentary. Above all, the directorial hand seemed genuine, reflective, benign towards the opera (both the work and the form), in marked distinction to the sense of cynicism and ‘will to destroy’ that seems to underpin other ‘radical’ productions. I’d ditch the little-cherub-as-executioner though.
Anyway, it looked pretty, made me smile here and there, made me think occasionally, and sounded good. I’ve had considerably worse nights at the opera, all things considered.