Saturday 2 November 2013

Verdi - Les Vepres Siciliennes

Les Vepres Siciliennes - Royal Opera House - photo Bill Cooper 2013
Photo Bill Cooper
We have already taken a first look at the new production of Verdi's Les Vepres Siciliennes at the Royal Opera House and I went along on 1 November 2013 to catch up with Stefan Herheim's striking new production. Marina Poplavskaya being still ill, Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian continued her performances in the role of Helene, with Bryan Hymel as Henri, Michael Volle as Guy de Montfort and Erwin Schrott as Procida. Antonio Pappano conducted. For the production Herheim was joined by his regular collaborator dramaturge Alexander Meier-Dorzenbach with sets by Philipp Furhofer and costumes by Gesine Vollm.

Verdi's opera was written in 1852 for the Paris Opera following up on the success of Jerusalem (a rewrite of I Lombardi) in 1847; the gap caused by the revolution of 1848. The timing is important, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots was premiered in 1836 and Le Prophete in 1849. In writing for the Paris Opera, Verdi would be aiming to emulate  Meyerbeer, the most influential opera composer of the age. And in doing so Verdi would work with Meyerbeer's librettist, Eugene Scribe (1791 - 1861). His struggles with the libretto are well, known but Verdi was keen to write his take on the Parisian grand opera form.

The most important factor in the Parisian grand opera was the impact of the historical on the personal; the finest in the genre took a real historical event and made it impact on a personal relationship. The result gave scope for large-scale historical scenes, and pathetic personal ones with the almost inevitable tragic outcome in a patchwork of scenes brilliantly organised by Meyerbeer. Verdi achieved the impossible and created his own take on the genre in Don Carlos, but here he was working with a far better libretto. The problem with Les Vepres Siciliennes is two-fold, first the historical event didn't happen (the libretto is based on one set in the Netherlands written for Halevy and partly set by Donizetti before being abandoned) and secondly the historical event (the massacre) does not have a strong enough impact on Henri and Helene's relationship (just think about Don Carlos and the way Verdi uses the historical impediment there).

That said, Verdi came up with some superb music. The work comes between La Traviata (1853) and Simon Boccanegra (first version 1857), but Un Ballo in Maschera (1859) is not far away and in the music for the conspirators and the masked ball at the end of act three we can hear the Verdi of Un Ballo in Maschera.

Why write for the Paris Opera if it was so difficult? Well it was there, it was the finest opera factory in the world. And French opera, with its variety of different poetic forms in the arias gave Verdi a far greater flexibility. It might constrain you with five act, a ballet, historical impetus, but within this you had a lot of freedom and a freer structure. You can hear this in Les Vepres Siciliennes compared to the multiple closed forms of La Traviata and this is something that Verdi brought away from French opera and continued in his later operas.

Herheim's production sets the work in the opera house of the premiere. It is important to note that this was the Salle Pelletier (not the huge Salle Garnier that we know today), and that the Salle Pelletier was a lot smaller than the Salle Garnier, much more on the scale of the present Opera Comique.

Furhofer's sets made brilliant use of the Royal Opera House's side stages (normally used for moving sets on and off) the result was one of the finest uses of space within the Covent Garden theatre that I have ever seen. I still have worries about quite how much could be seen from the sides of the auditorium. More worrying was Herheim's penchant for changing scenery mid-way during a scene with many important arias and duets being nearly sabotaged by the cast having the scenery moving around them (in quite spectacular fashion). It did not help that the scenery movement was noisy and so we had Verdi's opera accompanied by thumps and bangs.

The programme book included an article by dramaturge Alexander Meier-Dorzenbach which finishes with the statement 'The actual conflict in this production of Les Vepres is not about nationalities or politics but about illusion and disillusion of and within the theatre'. Gotz-Friedrich said of his first Ring production at Covent Garden that the opera took place in the theatre, now. This isn't quite true of Herheim's Les Vepres, it clearly takes place in the theatre, but not quite now. But at key moments, Herheim has the house lights brought partially up so that we are part of the action. And much of the action in the latter half of the opera is watched by an 'audience' on stage in the opera house set created by Furhofer. This is disturbing, is Herheim saying that the poignant personal scenes between Henri and Helene are not real, that they are just play-acting. This particularly has to be taken in the context of  the way Herheim played the opening of act five, taking the joyous music at face value and not giving us any hint of the stresses of the previous act.

In act four, at the eleventh hour, Henri accepts Montfort as his father, so Helene and Procida are pardoned and Montfort commands Henri and Helene's wedding. Act five opens with the wedding celebrations with a sequence of apparently trouble free music. This is one of the work's most problematic dramaturgical problems and one that Herheim and Meier-Dorzenbach did not solve. You could almost imagine cutting part of the act, except that Helene's bolero is one of the best known arias in the opera.

Herheim is a very detailed director and you feel that nothing he does is without reason, so there were lots of little moments on stage which left me wondering about his attitude to the opera. Not only the operatic audience, but the creation of Procida as a camp and rather effete figure.

The production was originally planned to use Verdi's ballet (the longest ballet music he wrote). This didn't happen, but we still had ballet dancers who seemed to wander around looking for an excuse to dance much in the manner of Gilbert and Sullivan's chorus of professional bridesmaids in Ruddigore.

Thankfully we got extremely strong performances from the principals which almost transcended the production.

Haroutounian impressed in her act one aria, the beautifully controlled melancholy of the opening shading into fine rallying cry. Unfortunately this whole scene points up the faults of the libretto, we don't learn much about Helene herself (compare to the Fontainebleau scene from Don Carlos, how much we learn about Elisabeth). Herheim solved it by putting Haroutounian in black and having her carry her dead brother's head, which unfortunately was a bit risible too. (I am beginning to think that all foreign directors should be forced to watch a whole series of Morecambe and Wise shows to make them understand what British audiences will find funny and risible).

The problem is that when Henri appears we don't really understand their relationship, we have no back-story. Bryan Hymel and Haroutounian did very well, with Haroutounian starting their act two duet in a very cool, cold way and gradually melting. But if this relationship is the engine of the entire opera, we need to know more about it and here Herheim failed us.

As with many operatic heroes, Henri is clearly 'ninepence to the shilling'; it seems a given that to function as an operatic hero you need to be rather dim. Hymel did not try to make Henri something he wasn't, Hymel simply gave us finely sung line, sheer dramatic commitment and not a trace of irony. Hymel has quite a fine grained voice, ie he sings with a tighter focus and strong line rather than wide open Italianate verismo style. He has shown his strength in Parisian grand opera singing in both Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable and Berlioz's Les Troyens at Covent Garden, and here he continued his winning streak.

Act two opened with a strong solo from Procida, Erwin Schrott sang with a gloriously dark, virile voice and was stunning here in one of the opera's best known arias Et toi Palerme. This act is a brilliant example of the way Verdi intermingles the public and private. Procida's solo leads to Henri and Helene's love duet but then we have the Sicilian wedding violently interrupted by the French, then the chorus of people going to the evening's masked ball. But Verdi superbly mixes the music of the two, giving us a startling and brilliant scene evoking Un Ballo in Maschera, with Antonio Pappano in the pit giving the music its full weight.

The role of Henri is one that we see through other people's eyes, he participates in all the work's duets. So that after Michael Volle's wonderful brooding solo in act three we get the incredibly strong duet between Volle and Hymel, with the father trying to get the son to acknowledge him. This whole scene is one of the finest in the opera, and Volle and Hymel were on stunning form, though Herheim tried to sabotage things by having images of Henri's mother appear repeatedly. This scene leads to one of the most remarkable scenes where the conspirators (Helene, Procida, Henri). I felt that the assassination scene in act three was a bit flat, dramaturgically, but there was nothing flat here about the singing and the way that the singers brought out the dichotomy between their presence at the ball and their whispered conspiratorial asides.

Act four is perhaps the strongest of the acts, with Henri torn between Helene and Montfort, and being despised by Procida. Hymel was extremely fine, and very moving in his opening solo, something far freer and more flexible than Verdi might have written in an Italian opera. When Helene appears, Haroutounian came into her own with a superb solo in which she combined a powerful feel for Verdi's fioriture, with a lovely sense of line. She has a beautiful smoky tone to her voice, and a nice edge which, at times, reminded me of Caballe. The scene develops into a duet which was incredibly moving, finally here was Verdi telling us about Henri and Helene's relationship.

The act concludes with a superb ensemble where each Procida (Schrott), Helene (Haroutounian), Henri (Hymel) and Montfort (Volle) each have their own point of view and Verdi weaves them into a stunning ensemble, rather sparely but so intense and the performers had you reeling by the end. Follow that!

Act five opened with a fine solo for Hymel and Haroutounian in glorious in the bolero, but the essential drama was parked, motor idling. When Schrott's Procida appears to tell Haroutnian's Helene about the planned massacre he is dragged up, in black to Haroutounian's white. And during Haroutounian's harrowing scene in which she agonises over what to do, Herheim almost upstages her by having Schrott spear all the Sicilians with the pole of the French flag he is holding. Volle's entry as Montfort breaks the spell and we realise it was just a bad dream. A stunning piece of theatre, but it did rather overshadow Haroutounian's scene. For the ending, Herheim brought off another dramatic coup, the scenery came forward, the chorus were in stunning form and the incredibly bright lights from behind made it clear that this was just theatre.

I'm still not quite clear what the production was 'about'. But in terms of creating a stunning dramatic entity and keeping us entertained, Herheim and his cast succeeded admirably. Throughout the main performers were admirably supported by numerous smaller roles, sung by Neal Cooper, Jihoon Kim, Jean Teitgen, Jeremy White, Nicolas Darmanin, Michelle Daly and Jung Soo Yun. The chorus too were on stunning form, particularly in the scenes were we have to or three different groups on stage at the same time.

Antonio Pappano conducted the Royal Opera Orchestra in a fine account of the score, which brought out the interest and strength of Verdi's score with Pappano clearly relishing the way Verdi echoes some of his later operas.

The production certainly deserves revival, I would like to see the production with the full ballet music. Perhaps we might also get to hear Marina Poplavskaya as Helene. There is so much in Verdi's score and in Herheim's production that seeing it multiple times is almost essential (except I can't afford the £84 for the mid-Amphitheatre seat!). So a revival please, and soon. Perhaps we might also put in a plea for some joined up programming. How about a concert performance of Donizetti's Duc d'Albe (which set Scribe's original libretto in 1839 and was completed by Matteo Salvi in 1881.)

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