Monday 10 February 2020

Les vêpres Siciliennes: Verdi's French Grand Opera makes a rare appearance in Welsh National Opera's striking new production

Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Wojtek Gierlach, Anush Hovhannisyan, Jung Soo Yun - Welsh National Oper (Photo Johan-Person)
Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Wojtek Gierlach, Anush Hovhannisyan, Jung Soo Yun
Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan-Person)
Verdi Les vêpres Siciliennes; Anush Hovhannisyan, Jung Soo Yun, Giorgio Caoduro, Wojtek Gierlach, dir: David Pountney, cond: Carlo Rizzi; Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 February 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Verdi's French Grand Opera makes a rare appearance in the UK, in a powerful evening from WNO

Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Wojtek Gierlach - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan-Person)
Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Wojtek Gierlach
Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan-Person)
Apart from Otello, during Verdi's lifetime when his operas were performed at the Paris Opera they were given in French often in revised version with ballet which brought the works closer to the Paris Opera's concept of Grand Opera. Three times, Verdi created a work specially for the Paris Opera, crafting operas which, with their historical setting, large crowd scenes, scope for scenic effect and focus on the struggle between personal and public duty, were his attempt to make French Grand Opera his own. The first was Jerusalem, a wholesale revision of I Lombardi, which failed to establish itself. The second was Les vêpres Siciliennes, when Verdi worked with the doyen of French Grand Opera, librettist Eugene Scribe, and another work which failed to establish itself in French, becoming better known in the Italian version. Finally, Don Carlos, a masterpiece where Verdi finally created his own version of French Grand Opera.

In terms of Verdi's operas, Les vêpres Siciliennes, which comes straight after his middle-period trio of Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata, is an important and influential milestone but it is rarely seen in the UK. Till relatively recently it was known mainly from the Italian version, but the BBC's broadcast of the French version in the 1970s was an important milestone (issued on CD by Opera Rara). In the early 1980s the opera was given by English National Opera in John Dexter's production from the Metropolitan Opera, New York with Rosalind Plowright as Helene. And in 2013 the Royal Opera House presented Stefan Herheim's new production of Les vêpres Siciliennes [see my review], but in between seems silence. Welsh National Opera last performed the work in 1954, so the company's new production held great interest.

Welsh National Opera's new production of Verdi's Les vêpres Siciliennes, the final of David Pountney's three middle-period Verdi operas for WNO (previously La forza del destino and Un ballo in maschera), opened at the Wales Millennium Centre on Saturday 8 February 2020. Carlo Rizzi conducted with Jung Soo Yun as Henri, Anush Hovhannisyan as Helene, Giorgio Caoduro as Guy de Montfort, Wojtek Gierlach as Procida, plus Wyn Pencarreg as Le Sire De Béthune, Christine Byrne as Ninette, ​Robyn Lyn Evans as Daniéli / Mainfroid, Gareth Brynmor John as Robert, Alexander Sprague as Thibault, and Alastair Moore as Le Comte de Vaudemont. Choreography was by Caroline Finn with dancers from the National Dance Company of Wales. Sets were designed by Raimund Bauer, and costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca.

Staging a French Grand Opera is a tricky business, the rather formalised structure can be somewhat unyielding, and Les vêpres Siciliennes is not helped by Verdi and Scribe's fraught relationship (the librettist was some 20 years older than the composer), with the librettist refusing Verdi's requests for revisions so that the final act sags somewhat.

Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Christine Byrne, Anush Hovhannisyan, Robyn Lyn Evans - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Person)
Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Christine Byrne, Anush Hovhannisyan, Robyn Lyn Evans
Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Person)
David Pountney and Raimund Bauer's solution was elegant in its clarity, three huge black frames which could frame the action and be moved around so the stage landscape was in constant fluid motion. There were no awkward pauses for scene changes (something that bedevilled  Christophe Honore's otherwise fine production of Verdi's original 1867 version of Don Carlos in Lyon, see my review) everything flowed. David Pountney's direction was largely unfussy, it was clear who everyone was and Marie-Jeanne Lecca's costumes helped. The French were in late 18th century Ancien Régime, the Sicilians in basic mid-20th century black, and Anush Hovhannisyan in an early 20th black gown, severe and suitable for mourning for her brother. The ballet was done as a play within a play depicting the young Guy de Montfort's seduction and rape of Henri's mother.

Casting French Grand Opera can be equally tricky, Verdi's Les vêpres Siciliennes requires lyric voices, yet ones capable of significant stamina. Henri is not an heroic role but it is a big sing, he is in all five acts, and for all Helene's passion she needs to be able to sing the roulades in her Act Five bolero.

The nub of the opera's drama lies in a sequence of duets and ensembles, a familiar Scribe trope, and the four principals, Anush Hovhannisyan, Jung Soo Yun, Giorgio Caoduro and Wojtek Gierlach, drew us into a web of taut relationships.

Hovhannisyan impressed on her first entry by her quality of stillness, and Hovhannisyan made Helene's character only gradually unfold. throughout the opera. Her bolero in Act Five, dramatically redundant but the opera's hit number, was beautifully done though at other times during the opera her tendency to approach notes from below veered toward the mannered. She made an affecting Helene and was finely partnered by Jung Soo Yun as a very intense and passionate Henri. Jung Soo Yun made him surprisingly sympathetic, and his pair of duets with Hovhannisyan fair crackled. The first moving from tentative love to a strange combination of passion and revenge, the second when she forgives him his betrayal of the conspirators when he admits he is Guy de Montfort's son.

Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Giorgio Caoduro - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Person)
Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Giorgio Caoduro - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Person)
This latter relationship is central to the opera, an unusual (for Verdi) father/son rather than father/daughter relationship. Jung Soo Yun's big scene with Giorgio Caoduro's Guy de Montfort also fair crackled as the two gradually manoeuvred round the fact that one of the Sicilian conspirators was the hated French governor's son. At the end of the scene, Henri says that the image of his mother stands between them, which led brilliantly into the dance version of Guy de Montfort's rape of Henri's mother.

Giorgio Caoduro made a lithe Guy de Montfort, bringing out the character's complexity. Part of the opera's brilliance is that he is not entirely unsympathetic whilst Wojtek Gierlach's Procida (notionally an heroic figure) is not entirely sympathetic. Giorgio Caoduro does not have the amplitude of voice of the classic Verdi baritone, but instead gave us lithe intensity and a willingness to do much more than swish around twirling his evil cape. Procida, the key conspirator, is an under-written character. Wojtek Gierlach made him admirably human whilst not neglecting his single-minded intensity. It is Procida who drives the plot with its resulting conflagration at the end and Gierlach did not disappoint.

Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Person)
Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Person)
David Pountney treated the four French officers very much as a quartet, almost a chorus, and Wyn Pencarreg, Gareth Brynmor John, Alexander Sprague, and Alastair Moore gave a fine ensemble performance with plenty of character. Christine Byrne as Ninette and ​Robyn Lyn Evans as Daniéli / Mainfroid popped up at various points, delighting with their fine lyric voices though their roles in the drama was less clear.

The opera requires a substantial chorus, the opening scene features choruses of both Sicilians and French, and the WNO chorus was in terrific form. David Pountney's skilled stage-craft showed in the way he effortlessly marshalled his forces and the singers responded brilliantly.

Choreographer Caroline Finn wisely did not attempt anything too advanced. Her Act Two folk-dance was a lively delight, all the more pointed for the day it ended as, egged on by Procida, the French troops abducted the women. The Four Seasons ballet in Act Three is one of Verdi's most developed ballet sequence (Kenneth MacMillan created a ballet based in it in 1975), but it was a trifle too long for the narrative of Guy de Montfort and Henri's mother, no matter how affectingly danced. For the opening of Act Five, David Pountney sought to remedy the work's dramatic deficiencies by having the dancers as elderly and severely put-upon servants, preparing first Helene and then Henri for their marriage, scenes which struck the only really false note in the production.

In the pit, Carlo Rizzi and the orchestra showed admirable understanding of the opera's style. The orchestra of the Paris Opera was a large and crack ensemble and Verdi took advantage of this. From the opening notes of the overture it was clear that we were in for a glorious evening.

Any staging of Les vêpres Siciliennes is a major undertaking and it is to the WNO, David Pountney, Carlo Rizzi and the cast's credit that they turned the piece into an evening full of vivid drama and made a coherent whole from this complex work without every straying far from the concept of French Grand Opera.

The libretto for Les vêpres Siciliennes was based on one that Scribe wrote for Donizetti in 1839, Le duc d'Albe. This never reached completion though Opera Rara has recorded Donizetti's torso, and I am still waiting for an inventive company to produce both operas in the same season, though perhaps that is only for French Grand Opera nerds like me.

Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Person)
Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Person)
Welsh National Opera is doing three performances of Les vêpres Siciliennes in Cardiff (15/2 and 22/2 to come) then Llandudno (7/3), Bristol (14/3), Southampton (21/3), Milton Keynes (4/4), Plymouth (18/4) and Birmingham (9/5), probably more performances of the opera than the UK has seen in a long time. Catch it while you can.

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