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Frock Me – Virtual Verdi.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on October 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Review – Les Vêpres Siciliennes (Royal Opera House, Thursday 17 October 2013)

Guy de Montfort – Michael Volle
Hélène – Lianna Haroutounian
Henri – Bryan Hymel
Jean Procida – Erwin Schrott
Robert – Jihoon Kim
Ninetta – Michelle Daly
Thibault – Neal Cooper
Le Sire de Béthune – Jean Teitgen
Le Comte de Vaudemont – Jeremy White
Daniéli – Nicholas Darmanin
Mainfroid – Jung Soo Yun

Director – Stefan Herheim
Set Designs – Philipp Hürhoffer
Costume Designs – Gesine Völlm
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Choreography – André de Jong
Lighting Design – Anders Poll

Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Director – Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Concert Master – Vasko Vassilebv)
Conductor – Antonio Pappano

It is both unbelievable but somewhat acceptable that Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes has never before been performed at Covent Garden. It requires not only a cast of singers with incredible technique, musicianship and stamina but also a director – and team – who can visualize a path through the convoluted story.

For the debut run the Royal Opera House almost had both. Without doubt it was a strong production both musically and production-wise, and with some tightening both in terms of performance and artistic vision it could be a great production. But I do wonder if it will ever return to Covent Garden considering the demands it makes of the singers? Even one fault line in the cast would mar a return.

Yet on the first night – despite some glitches – the singing from both cast and chorus was very good but the greatest plaudits must go to the incredible performance of Michael Volle as Guy de Monfort. Having thoroughly enjoyed his Mandryka opposite Renée Fleming in Paris and his Kurwenal in Loy’s Tristan und Isolde, I have always admired him as one of those rare-breed of singers who can act. And as de Montfort he totally invested in the character from the overture to the end of the opera – switching from conquering swagger to all-too-human father to great effect. Vocally he was on top form, with clear diction for the most part and a firm, full tone through the breadth of his range. From Oui, je fus bien coupable he dominated the first scene of Act Three with his son Henri and Pappano drew both excellent singing from both father and son in the ensuing duet and playing from the orchestra to make this the emotional and musical highlight of the evening. I was not surprised when Volle drew the biggest cheers once the curtain fell.

According to the programme, Lianna Haroutounian – who stepped in for an indisposed Anna Poplavskaya – has sung the role of Hélène before in Spain and Germany and in Italian in Athens and her experience of the role showed. Inhabiting the character from her first appearance, veiled and holding the rotting head of her brother Frédèric like her nemesis de Montfort Haroutounian can sing and act. Her opening air, Viens à nous, Dieu tutélaire was delivered with great dignity and breath of vocal line. Ms Haroutounian’s is possession of a formidable voice – putting aside first night nerves, for the most part it is resonant and richly timbred from bottom to top and when required she could sail over both chorus and orchestra but also showed an innate musicianship in the ensemble pieces with her fellow protagonists. I always think it rather cruel of Verdi to score Hélène’s set piece in the final act and it was a small shame that tiredness seemed to almost get the better of Haroutounian in Merci, jeunes amies, d’un souvenir si doux. Although at times slightly behind Pappano in the pit the soprano took the vocal challenges of the air head on and what she may have lacked in total finesse she made up for with dramatic impact.

Following Bryan Hymel’s success as Aeneas in ROH’s Les Troyens it’s no surprise that they wanted him back as Henri with his clear and clarion-toned tenor. As mentioned, his scene in the Third Act with his father was electrifying and his sustained delivery of O jour de peine and the subsequent duet was quite beautiful.

Personally I found Erwin Schrott’s Procida the least convincing characterization. Vocally, while he had all the notes, I felt his Procida was slightly over-cooked – veering from almost pantomime camp to an almost baseless malevolence. In fact, for me, the moment when he appeared frocked-up was the most powerful. More of that later.

The smaller roles were well delivered and particular mention must go to Jihoon Kim’s Robert – well sung and believably acted.

Pappano – is there a better Verdian than him at the moment – drew some of the best singing and playing from chorus and orchestra that I have heard for a long time at Covent Garden. The chorus, from the first scene were well-drilled both in terms of their ensemble and acting, with Pappano mashalling them with great effect alongside the solists in the great choral tableaux. In the pit, Pappano lovingly revealed that special tinta the composer baked into the score from the start of the overture through to the prison scene with great delicacy.

If musically the production was strong, so for me was Herheim’s production. With expectations high for his Covent Garden debut, in its overall approach his vision was both eloquent and intelligent. And any fear that Herheim – and his team – might overly intellectualise the drama itself was unfounded.

This was a production that revealed deep thought and smart insight. In the days before the first note was sounded, it was made clear that the setting would be the Académie Impériale de Musique where the opera was first performed (although by my reckoning by 1855 it was in fact called the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra). Both Pappano and dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach relayed that the focus would be on passion and power, illusion and disillusion within opera itself.

This was Verdi in a virtual world.

And indeed the curtain rose on Degas’ famous painting of ballet dancers rehearsing. A beautiful and delicate image that did nothing to prepare me for the savagery of the ensuing rape scene. Not only was it almost too visceral but in its physicality, unintentionally reminiscent of the opening Bachannale from Albery’s Tannhauser.

And having dispensed with the ballet Les Quatres Saisons earlier on as the production developed, Herheim successfully integrated dance throughout, weaving it cleverly into the narrative. I liked the way that he used dance to tell the story of Henri for example, the black-clad ballerinas returning at key moments as in the Third Act – and I thought – in rather sinister fashion for the wedding scene.

Another technique of Herheim’s also seems to be the use of recurring visual motifs. The Young Henri for example – reminiscent of his Parsifal at Bayreuth in many ways – appearing not only in the Third Act as a vision before de Montfort’s eyes before his real confrontation with his son, but again as ‘Cupid’ at the wedding. For me this was ironic – a son born out of violence, conflicted by love and presiding over a wedding that would lead to a massacre.

Similarly, Hélène’s dead brother Frédèric also loomed large throughout the opera. The masks worn for the ball for example, sported rather chillingly by the Young Henri at the start of the third act and by Procida-in-drag at the start of the fourth. It reminded me that for Hélène revenge and duty were inextricably linked with her love for de Montfort’s son.

And for me this is also why Herheim put Procida in a black dress. Despite the audience titters, it wasn’t simply a dress but a replica of Hélène’s own wedding dress. And as Procida – always standing across from the doomed bride – mirrored her every move, he suddenly and eloquently became her conscience. And this was magnified when, as her conscience/the spirit of Frédèric, Procida acted out in that virtual reality created on stage the massacre that the audience never really sees.

However there were moments when the overall approach didn’t quite work. The prison scene in the Fourth Act for example, suddenly felt very ‘traditional’ with the duet – with Hélène and Henri simply circling the executioner’s block – lacking the clarity that was in evidence elsewhere. I did wonder had Herheim brought in the spectators in the boxes earlier – rather than rather obviously created a prison set complete with Don Carlo-like clergy – would it have been more effective?

Also the ending, with Herheim blinding the audience with stage lights was too obvious a reference to the idea of theatre as illusion. Creating that illusion within the parameters of the stage itself – with its own cadre of voyeurs seated in fictitious seats was strong enough on its own. Turning the lights onto the real audience at the end diminished for me the virtual world he had created on the stage.

But overall this was an impressive production. Musically, I could not have wonted for a stronger, more committed and impassioned cast. And Herheim and this team did not disappoint with a brave and as I have said, mostly eloquent creative idea.

I hope that Les Vêpres Siciliennes returns again to Covent Garden. It would be a shame to waste all the thought, effort and commitment that has gone into this Verdi debut.

And I hope Herheim will return with another production in the near future at Covent Garden.

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  1. […] us Konwitschny’s thought provoking and well performed La Traviata but it was Covent Garden’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes that proved to be my Verdian highlight. Bedevilled with casting problems, Stefan Herheim’s first […]

  2. […] hope that when it returns – and with any luck alongside Herheim’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes – that Maria Agresta and Francesco Meli will return along with a true […]

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