Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, October 2013Posted on 18 October 2013
For this opera, Verdi was presented with a script by Eugène Scribe, who simply modified an old libretto for Donizetti. The new Verdi opera was supposed to be based on the Sicilian uprising against French rule in 1282, whereas the earlier libretto (Le duc d’Albe) for Donizetti was based on events in 1573 when the Duke of Alba was sent to Flanders to repress a rebellion against Spanish rule.
Donizetti left his score unfinished, and Verdi was unaware of it until that earlier opera was completed in 1882, many years after its composer’s death. Had he known at the time he could have rejected what Charles Osborne describes as an “imbecilic hotch-potch” giving an “inane travesty” of the events of 1282. Certainly Verdi was unhappy with it, and Stefan Herheim, the director of this new production, along with his dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, have relocated things to the Paris of grand opera in 1855 when this work was originally staged.
Herheim used a similar relocation technique in his remarkable Parsifal production at Bayreuth, set in the Germany that developed from before the First World War until after the Second. In that production we witness some of the background to the opera when the young man’s mother gives birth to him, and a similar thing happens here in a scene during the overture where we see the explicit rape of a ballerina by Guy de Montfort (French governor of Sicily in the original). Three stages in the consequences of that action are shown: a pregnant ballerina, one carrying an infant in a sling, and one child. The fourth stage, where the child has grown up to become Henri, the Sicilian rebel, is roughly where Act I starts.
The essence of this libretto is the problem of oppression, and the discovery that your father is on the side of the oppressors. That accounts for two of the main characters, the other two being principal rebels: Henri’s adored Hélène, sister of a duke executed by the French, and the rebel leader, Jean Procida. Both were strongly sung by Lianna Haroutounian and Erwin Schrott, with Bryan Hymel as a noble voice in the high tenor role of Henri. As de Montfort, Michael Volle gave a commanding and sympathetic performance, and the chorus sang with great power.
Philipp Fürhofer’s sets were magnificent, with an ever-present theatre circle, mostly occupied by audience either in French uniform or evening dress, and the set cleverly turned to place this circle on either side. Ballerinas were an almost constant presence, somewhat intrusive perhaps but emphasising the theme of this production as a conflict between artists and those who engage with and abuse art. The fact that the struggle is one involving the theatre world came out very clearly in Act V where Jean Procida, in an elaborate black ball dress, used the sharp end of a fleur-de-lis on the tip of a French flag to stab everyone, starting with a woman pregnant with the child of a French soldier. No one did anything to stop him, and they all fell like hapless extras in a ham stage production, before getting up again to celebrate the wedding of Henri and Hélène.
This is the second apparent massacre of the production, an earlier one occurring in Act III, where Henri decides to protect de Montfort from assassination, having been told of the filial relationship at the start of that act. This, however, was very stylised, as all the rebels with their yellow ribbons were in white tie, while the French were in uniform. There was no question of rebels infiltrating other guests at the ball.
Does Herheim’s production work? Yes. It is an intriguing take on this opera, but whereas his Bayreuth Parsifal places Wagner’s meta-human libretto into a historic setting, I’m not sure Scribe’s libretto has the strength to sustain the change of setting from the political world of repression and rebellion to the world of art. In any event the opera contains wonderful musical gems by Verdi, and Antonio Pappano conducted it to great effect.
Performances continue until November 11 — for details click here. Lianna Haroutounian was replacing Marina Poplavskaya, who will return on October 29 for the rest of the run. The performance on November 4 will be screened live in cinemas, and on November 18 a recorded broadcast will be given on BBC Radio 3 at 6:15 pm.