When They're On: Verdi's Les vêpres siciliennes at the Royal Opera House

Pictured just above is the promotional graphic for the Royal Opera House's production of Les vêpres siciliennes. It's an odd graphic that tries to get to the production's vision. That vision was a failure. Despite that, the performance I witnessed was phenomenal because of the performers. It was my first chance to see Verdi's rare opera and it was a wonderful one. I definitely want to listen to more recordings and, if possible, see more performances, including the Italian variant, which is more often performed. As a tenor, it was especially exciting, for the first time, to see a tenor in a truly central role who I might describe as, "on."
Synopsis and general information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_vêpres_siciliennes

Les vêpres siciliennes | Giuseppe Verdi


Director | Stefan Herheim
Dramaturg | Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Set Designer | Philipp Fürhofer
Costume Designer | Gesine Voellm
Lighting Designer | Anders Poll
Choreography | Andre de Jong

Helene | Marina Poplavskaya (replaced by Lianna Haroutounian)
Henri | Bryan Hymel
Procida | Erwin Schrott
Guy de Montfort | Michael Volle
Thibault | Neal Cooper
Robert | Jihoon Kim
Le Sire de Béthune | Jean Teitgen
Le Comte de Vaudemont | Jeremy White
Daniéli | Nicolas Darmanin
Ninetta | Michelle Daly
Manifroid | Jung Soo Yun

Conductor | Antonio Pappano
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera Chorus
So I don't usually read program notes but happened to because I was quite early for this performance and had nothing else to do. I learned that the creative team's intention was to, on one level, demonstrate the drama between the characters in the context of French oppression of Sicily, as the plot demands. On another level, however, they wanted to demonstrate the oppression of artists, in an opera house, by patrons and others who can impinge upon the success of art as outside influences. Frankly, this was completely lost on me except for a few moments when it was glaringly obvious. Had I not read the program notes I imagine I never would have been able to catch at what they were getting. Yes, there were times when there were clearly patrons in the balconies of the French opera watching the singers, but there was really no commentary and the few times it did stick out it was a distraction. Still, despite the set thus being largely irrelevant, something about the varying locations, the opera auditorium, the rehearsal spaces with one wall of mirrors and one solid wall, etc., all within the opera house were still beautiful and allowed for a perfectly acceptable setting in which the action could take place. I was surprised by this because usually I feel a period set would have been better when one of these imaginative, somewhat abstract sets doesn't work out. Here it did, however, especially since things such as tables, an executioner's block, etc. were provided where necessary. The costumes were lovely, accentuating each character's demeanor (Henri's uprightness, the casualness of Guy's power, Procida's menace, Helene's innocence, etc.). I really wish I had Procida's boots, I have to say!

Now, director Stefan Herheim, if complicit in this failing grand vision, seemed nonetheless to fundamentally help with the direction of the production as far as the interactions between the leads. Yes, the moment at the end when Procida, dressed in a black facsimile of Helene's white wedding gown kills all of the people before they come back to life did not really seem to fit or make sense and undermined the opera's climax. Still, generally Herheim seemed to grasp the fundamental relationships between the four main characters that truly drive the drama of the opera. If only those instincts would have been left alone rather than incorporated into a bizarre abstract message, there would be only praise for the direction.
Marina Poplavskaya was one of the major attractions of this production. An unusual Verdi opera, rarely performed (especially in the French), his bicentennial, a rising soprano star in the repertoire, etc. Unfortunately she was indisposed for the beginning of the run when I attended. I would have been interested to see her since I've heard a huge range of reviews and that she fares better on the screen than live in the house. Lianna Haroutounian, however, was not a bad replacement by any means, and certainly well respected in the business. This night, however, of the four leads she felt the least compelling. It is true that she demonstrated incredible technical control, with immense finesse, especially in her two arias, "Viens à nous, Dieu tutelaire" and"Merci, jeunes amies." Still, her portrayal, both vocally and in terms of her acting, seemed to lack the dramatic intensity present in those of the male members of the cast. It is entirely possible this was in no small part due to the contrast. While her soft, technical performance might have communicated tenderness, indecision, and thoughtfulness in a character that could be all those things, when compared with the brash singing and acting of the men, it felt out of place and lackluster. In short - a performance that was more and more appreciable as the night went on but that never really grabbed the attention.

Michael Volle as Guy de Montfort also began with a bit of a bump. At the outset as he reached for his upper range a hint of tension was detectable and it seemed we were in for a long night. Within minutes, however, that vanished and he became a star of the evening, with a rich, noble voice that communicated authority without menace or bravado, perfect for a man accustomed to power but fundamentally in the role of the loving father at the point in his life of the opera. It's not a glamorous role. But Michael Volle demonstrated its vital importance. His aria, "Au sein de la puissance" was the most tender, heartfelt epiphany that it truly set him to turn around his character as the evening went on. His duets with Bryan Hymel, also, were striking. By most standards it is hard to really see Guy de Montfort as a good guy. Volle handled this, still demonstrating Guy's bold, even arrogant conduct in dealing with the Sicilians, his son, the traitors, and even the wedding at the end. But his love for his son was so blindingly clear that it was truly possible to believe he was a man changing for the better and acting true to his love in the best way he knew.
If Volle's Guy de Montfort only touched on the hallmarks of occupying tyrant in a brilliantly hollow way, Erwin Schrott as Procida was almost sociopathic in his obsession with freedom, his menacing stalk around the stage, and his steely bass voice. Probably the most impressive characterization of the evening came from Schrott in this role. As he prowled through the opera he exuded an almost casually self-possessed sense of confidence, galvanized by Procida's zealous belief in the cause. From the beginning he was actually a villain, but it was clear that Henri and Helene could not see it though the audience could. This turned the tables brilliantly on the typical relationship with Guy de Montfort, demonstrating how the freedom fighter can be just as much a tyrant. His interaction with his sister were brusque and manipulative, capitulating only when it served the cause and otherwise badgering to get his way through guilt and any other means available. His wrath at Henri's betrayal was that of a true believer looking upon a heretic, and his hate for Guy was unshakeable. Hence, as the opera draws to a close his glee at his success in the massacre is not just the mistaken tragedy of a man fighting against a true tyrant at the wrong time, but of psychopathic obsession overwhelming reconciliation and revealing the true villain of the opera. Schrott's singing, a mixture of razor sharpness and molten steel, beautifully carried out both the most dramatic moments and also the most silver-tongued, snake-like statements. Indeed, his Act II tour de force in his solo sections provided a perfect summation of this brilliant characterization, delivered with inspired singing.

Michael Volle and Erwin Schrott unquestionably helped make this production superb, but it was hard to outshine Bryan Hymel as Henri. Though he himself claims his lyric-spinto tenor voice lacks a typical Italianate sound, I personally found a voice that was not unexpected for this kind of repertoire.  What is, perhaps, unique about Hymel is his ability to combine a sense of total vocal freedom with a darker, heftier timbre - really a perfect combination for Verdi. The most affecting element of his performance as Henri was his complete comfort and control in the role. Though not in the laissez-faire style of a leggiero tenor, he easily and thrillingly flung his voice into interpolated high notes throughout the opera, notably in his arias "O jour de peine" and "Le brise souffle au loin" as well as his duet with his father. Henri in some ways is hard to play originally - he's a typical hero torn between his love of country, love of a woman, and love of family (the last is original in the writing, but doesn't changed the hero between different commitments thing). Hymel, though, really seemed to embody this stereotypical sort of character. His hurt when accused of being a traitor (to any of his constituents), his professions of love, his frantic moments of indecision, all were entirely believable. Combined with his thrilling vocals and sense of ease, the performance was simply fantastic.

The rest of the ensemble, the orchestra, and the chorus, all led by Antonio Pappano definitely helped the opera along, allowing the leads to truly shine and drawing out the drama and pathos of Verdi's score. What was so wonderful about the ensemble and the production in this regard is that it all simply worked. Pappano helped make this possible. Hence, when something really important occurred, whether a bit of staging, a vocal moment, or some stunning acting, it really had the opportunity to shine.

The clever, but entirely inaccessible conceptualization for this production, commentating on the slavery of art to the Parisian elite of the 19th century, really had the possibility of lousing up the entire thing. through incredible skill, however, of the costumers and stage designers (even if they were complicit in the production's failing vision) in designing a compelling, beautiful set, of the singers in bringing thrilling performances to bear, and of the ensemble for powerfully setting the atmosphere in which the drama played out. Truly exceptional.


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