Friday 18 October 2013

First look: Les Vepres Siciliennes at Covent Garden

Erwin Schrott and dancers in Les Vepres Siciliennes at the Royal Opera House - (c) ROH/Bill Cooper 2013
Erwin Schrott and dancers in Les Vepres Siciliennes
(c) ROH/Bill Cooper 2013
The Royal Opera House brought its celebrations of the Verdi bicentenary to a close with its first production of Verdi's Les Vepres Siciliennes, thankfully performed in its original French version. The opera was Verdi's first custom build opera for the Paris Opera (it was preceded by Jerusalem which was a re-write of I Lombardi). Les Vepres Siciliennes was based on a rather hoary old libretto, originally written for Donizetti in the 1830's.  It is an uneasy backward glance at Parisian grand opera, in five-acts with a ballet and with an interaction between the historical and the personal, but the plot rather runs out of steam towards the end and Verdi would re-visit the genre far more successfully in Don Carlos.

Director Stefan Herheim, working at Covent Garden for the first time, brought his famously historical approach to bear on the opera. Working with his regular collaborator dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dorzenbach, with set designs by Philipp Fürhofer and costumes by Geine Völlm, Herheim set the piece within a theatre during the period of the opera's composition.  There was a strong cast, including Lianna Haroutounian as Helen, Michael Volle as Guy de Montfort, Bryan Hymel as Henri and Erwin Schrott as Jean Procida with Antonio Pappano conducting.

I will be reviewing a later performance of the opera in detail, but one of Planet Hugill's other contributors attended the first night on 17 October 2013 and this first look is based on his report.

Herheim's main coup was to open the staging during the overture, set in a mirrored dance studio in a theatre, with Procida (Erwin Schrott ) as a very camp ballet master (all long hair and cuban heel boots) and who is unable to defend his ballet troup from the maurauding French. The whole prologue gave us the back-story; Montfort raping a Sicilian woman who gives birth to a son, etc.

The set, a single basic one which was flexibly moved around, was spectacular in its gaudy way (though against the real gilding in the Royal Opera House's auditorium) the ersatz gilding on the set simply looked tacky. The mirrored walls of the dance studio revolved to become murals and then the whole transformed into a theatre, echoing the theatre the audience was sitting it. The problem is that, again, a director and his designers have ignored the sight lines in the Royal Opera House, particularly in the higher levels and there were scenes later in the opera when the set opened up left important areas invisible to some spectators. Also my correspondent did think that, by the end of the opera, there had been one revolve of the set too many.

It looks as if the production, evidently rather complex, needs a bit of bedding in; judging from the way that stage hands could be seen on stage from the amphitheatre, the set was not functioning properly. There were other hiccups such as dodgy follow-spots which seemed to indicate that the opera rather ran into lack of technical rehearsal time.

There were one or two mis-judgements in the production which probably arose because Herheim is unfamiliar with British culture. My correspondent felt that the scene in act two when Procida and his followers return from exile and swear vengeance on the French was pure Morecombe and Wise in the way Herheim had them excercising at the bar in the ballet-studio.

The unnamed boy who played the young Henri was on stage for much of the opera, even being the executioner, and he came pretty close to stealing the show. Bryan Hymel was on strong form as Henri,  his duet with Michael Volle's terrific Guy de Montfort in act three was evidently one of the highpoints of the evening.  The ensemble which concluded this act also made a very strong impression.

Things are harder in the last two acts, the plot loses momentum and Hymel seemed to be in danger of tiring, though undoubtedly as the run progresses the role will bed itself into his voice.

Lianna Haroutounian has garnered mixed reviews for her Helene, famously she has replaced an ailing Marina Poplavskaya. Haroutounian seemed to be on uncertain form in places, her voice broke during act four, but she is definitely a singer to watch. Erwin Schrott made a strong Procida, even dragging up to form the ying to Marina's yang during act five.

There was a strong performance from Pappano and the Royal Opera House orchestra.

A large and complex opera, in a large and complex production, with many singers in taxing role debuts, there is undoubtedly scope for the production to bed in and I will be reporting back when I attend a performance later in the run.

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