Les vêpres siciliennes - Royal Opera House, 17 October 2013 (first night)
It's preposterously plotted, dramatically unbalanced and musically uneven. It needs four exceptional singers, an expensively oversized chorus, and a ballet company. No wonder Covent Garden has never staged Les vêpres siciliennes until now.
If any opera justifies the knackered old theatre-within-a-theatre concept, this is the one. Most of the work's faults are directly attributable to the strictures of grand opéra under whichVerdi laboured. The expectations of the premiere's Parisian audience too - girls, glamour, gargantuan length - contributed to the shape of the final work.
So Stefan Herheim has turned Covent Garden into the Paris Opéra, casting the revolting Sicilians as stage workers and their French oppressors as the audience. I half-expected an allusion to the composer himself, a favourite Herheim ploy, but the only 'real' person I clocked was Michael Volle's Napoleon III-like Guy de Montfort. The revolutionary leader Procida is played by Erwin Schrott as a ballet master from a Degas painting, and Hélène a prima donna with a penchant for carting her dead brother's rotting head around, Yorick style.
The grand opera style is all about spectacle and excess. Herheim stints on neither, with massed choruses and set-change wizardry distracting from the more pedestrian musical moments. Thanks to a contretemps with the original choreographer, we are denied both the 40-minute set-piece and the Royal Ballet themselves. The compensation, "freelance dancers" who act out the backstory of rape and revenge to the sound of the overture then reappear, regowned in black, to remind us of the double life of the Parisian ballerinas, whored out to wealthy patrons after the show. Herheim extracts maximum showstopper mileage from the final deadly massacre by making it a dream sequence where anything's possible - including Erwin Schrott frocked up in a dark mirror image of Hélène's virginal white wedding dress.
The maximalism on stage was matched in the pit, where Pappano took the overblown score at face value in all its ear-splitting glory. Subtlety came from Michael Volle's nuanced Montfort, a tyrant who shows a human face when he learns Henri (Bryan Hymel) is his son. Hymel's own performance was less delicately shaded, but, astonishingly, near-tireless. His voice retains that unattractively compressed timbre, but there's improvement in his formerly weak lower register, which now has all the blazing power of his top.
The volume prize however went to Erwin Schrott. Whatever the oddities of his camp, self-regarding Procida (I'm not sure if he actually winked at the audience, but it wouldn't surprise me), his massive bass projected with ease in an only slightly-accented French.
I fear we didn't get the best of Lianna Haroutounian, who impressed me far more when she stood in for Harteros in Don Carlo. And I don't just mean unfortunate costumes that accentuated her Queen Victoria physique. Her opening act was bottled and tentative, her eventual showpiece bolero Merçi, jeunes amies out of time and out of tune, and what came in between was uneven. I was not surprised to learn later she had developed laryngitis. Her natural warmth and commitment kept the audience on her side, but vocally there was room for improvement. Or, as it transpires, Marina Poplavskaya.
production photos (above) Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House
curtain call photos (below) intermezzo.typepad.com