Verdi's Les Vêpres Siciliennes

Helen Wallace is pleasantly surprised by an opera which is often regarded as tricky to stage

Les vêpres siciliennes balletVerdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes has accrued a reputation for being too long, too French, too historically inaccurate, dramaturgically compromised, and, with its full-blown ballet, too expensive. Covent Garden’s first-ever production, directed by Stefan Herheim and led by the sure hand of Sir Antonio Pappano, proves otherwise. Far from being Verdi’s misguided ‘attempt’ at Grand Opera, it’s a riveting, fast-paced piece of theatre with scenes of private agony to match anything in La traviata and political drama to rival Simon Boccanegra.

For Herheim, the battle for self-determination is taking place not in a Medieval Sicily colonised by the French but within the gilded cage of the Paris Opéra in 1850. We are witnessing a sinister fight for power over art, with the ultra feminised ballerinas the victims of their controlling, abusive admirers. Written into Verdi’s score, too, is a struggle between French and Italian opera, with the latter’s dynamic cabalettas, resounding choruses and psychologically sophisticated soliloquies winning hands down over bloated length or empty spectacle. Ditching the full-length ballet, choreographer André de Jong used the rich resource of 12 ballerinas throughout the opera; their acting of the opera’s central plot during the Overture was inspired, and their interactions with singers further animated Herheim’s lively direction and Philipp Fürhofer’s opulent, mirrored staging.

Les vêpres siciliennesPicture: Erwin Schrott as Procida, Lianna Haroutounian as Hélène, Bryan Hymel as Henri. Royal Opera House/Bill Cooper

Les Vêpres needs three formidable male voices, which is what this cast delivered: Michael Volle drew perhaps the loudest cheer for his penetrating, complex Montfort, the despotic French governor whose world unravels when he discovers his enemy is his bastard son, Henri, sung with ringing sincerity by Bryan Hymel. In their key Act 3 scene, during which the truth is revealed, Verdi examines every aspect of the raw distress born of a corrupted paternal relationship with staggering insight. Torn between his past and future, Henri is a man on the rack. It hurts. Bass-baritone Erwin Schrott makes an ideal patriot Procida: his smouldering vengeance turns sinister, then explosive as the opera progressed; his inky bass effortlessly fills the auditorium.

Casting mishaps were turned on their head on Monday night: Marina Poplavskaya, who had withdrawn from the opening performances due to illness, replaced Lianna Haroutounian, now indisposed with laryngitis after one night. While the part of Hélène suits Poplavskaya’s imperious intensity, she sounded distinctly uneven (particularly in her Act 1 exhortation) and struggled to keep pace and to hit the heights. Only, in the final, charming Boléro did we hear the glorious, covered quality of which she’s capable.

Les vêpres siciliennesPhoto: Erwin Schrott as Procida and Lianna Haroutounian as Hélène. Royal Opera House/Bill Cooper

Aronofsky’s film Black Swan seemed to have been one inspiration for the production, which sometimes veered towards gothic shlock: masks were skulls at the ball, French soldiers donned the tulle skirts of raped ballerinas, Schrott appeared in the final act dressed as Odile, a bad fairy at the feast who slays the assembled revellers with his bayoneted French flag before setting light to it. After the intense confrontations in Acts 3 and 4, there seems to be no music left for the final uprising. Instead, Herheim turned the lights on his audience, challenging our complicity.

Verdi's Les Vêpres siciliennes runs at the Royal Opera House until 11 November. This production will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 18 November at 6.15pm