Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes is his least performed mature opera, even in its more familiar version as I vespri siciliani. So mounting it with a top-ranking cast and an interesting production is just what the Royal Opera should do in a so far seriously under-celebrated Verdi bicentenary year. What has actually happened is that we have a first-rate musical performance and a dismally confusing, cluttered, pretentious and conspicuously consuming production by the most fashionable of Continental directors, Stefan Herheim, abetted by the set designs of Philipp Fürhofer and the ideas of his regular dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach.
The action of Vêpres, which is set in 1282, only makes sense, insofar as it ever can, in that period, but it goes without saying that Herheim and his team have other ideas, and this production is set at the time of the opera’s composition, in the mid-1850s, and onstage at the Paris Opéra. The sets, vast and costly-looking as they are, are restless and often swing round, advance or retreat, with front curtains raised and lowered, an inattentive audience applauding and often singing. We have to realise that besides the main action, which is that of the hostility between the Sicilians and their French conquerors, there is, according to Casper Holten, the Royal Opera’s director of opera, who is heavily into this kind of thing, ‘an existential struggle between artists and the people who want to use and abuse art — making art itself the country over which they are fighting’. I hope that the audience managed to pick up on that, since it isn’t in the least apparent from looking at the stage and the surtitles, and one wonders how on earth it could be.
The libretto, by that 19th-century text-generating computer called Eugène Scribe, is admitted by all the leading Verdi specialists to be imbecilic, a mere highest common factor of Grand Opera clichés, a perfect case of Wagner’s famous description: ‘effects without causes’. Verdi himself, no paragon of taste in these matters, found it hard-going, and the results are plain to hear. Much of the score is well below the level of anything else he wrote as late as this period in his career, with the exception of some of La forza del destino. The pleasures to be derived from it are strictly picaresque, an aria here, a duet or ensemble there, with long desert stretches in between. The half-hour-long ballet, which was originally going to be performed in this production, was in the happy event omitted, but the corps de ballet were nonetheless almost continuously employed, as perhaps the patrons of the Paris Opéra might have insisted, but we certainly don’t. They appeared in their white or black tutus incessantly, often wildly irrelevantly, and even some of the conspirators went in for superfluous rhythmic kicking, with misplaced comical results.
Against this quasi-background of distractions the principals performed to impressive effect. The heroine Hélène is sung for the first three performances by the Armenian Lianna Haroutounian, who has a somewhat gusty vocal production, her voice registering powerfully much of the time, then almost disappearing: she is a striking artist. Her beloved Henri, awkwardly divided in his allegiances, is superbly taken by Bryan Hymel, a versatile and intense tenor who is one of Covent Garden’s most exciting recent finds. Michael Volle as Guy de Montfort, the French villain, is just as strong: I look forward to seeing him in a good production of a great opera. And the top barihunk Erwin Schrott is Procida, sung with panache, perhaps a degree of stridency, but with winning commitment. Visually he was unrecognisable until he bared his chest in Act IV. Antonio Pappano does everything that can be done to bring the extinct beast to life. I’d like to see this cast and orchestra and conductor in a concert performance of the work.
The evening before, in the Royal Opera’s torture chamber also known as the Linbury Studio, the Meet the Young Artists Week presented an appealing opera by Xavier Montsalvatge, El gato con botas (Puss in Boots). Dating from 1948, it is in an idiom that might gently be called traditional, but then in Spain at that date that is hardly surprising. The production was brilliant, a winning mix of singers, puppets and models, with the Cat played and sung stupendously by Rachel Kelly, a real star to be. The piece, at just over an hour, slightly outstays its welcome, but it would be churlish to mind. It was preceded by Berio’s arrangement of 11 traditional folk songs, for soprano and small orchestra, sung by Dusica Bijelic. A degree of caution stopped her from making the impression that she might have, but it was still enchanting.
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