This production marks the first time that the ROH has ever staged Les vêpres siciliennes, but perhaps more excitingly, it is also the house début of opera director du jour, Stefan Herheim. It's a surprising choice for him in some ways as he has tended to stick to German repertoire and Italian warhorses, but he clearly had a reason for doing this one. One of the central concerns of Herheim's work is the operatic artform itself, and there is hardly a production that he has done that does not make a comment on some aspect of opera and how we relate to it. This it turns out is his reason for taking on Les vêpres siciliennes - the opera charts the course of Sicilian rebellion against a French invasion, and Herheim seems to see this as parallel to what Verdi was doing in this very opera - wrestling French grand opera back into the hands of the Italians. But Herheim is nothing if not complex - he's tackling a lot of other issues here as well as telling the story of Verdi's opera. Here's what I got from the experience.
The stage that is depicted within the ROH stage is the Paris opera house of the mid 19th century - we get to see French high society ladies and gents in their boxes watching Sicilian peasants on stage. Backstage, the foppish Jean Procida (played by Erwin Schrott) martials his ballet dancers, and we are of course reminded of Degas and his subject matter - the relationship between working women and society gentlemen. The overture is brilliantly choreographed, as Herheim sets the scene and provides the entire background to the opera with dazzling precision and synchronicity to the score. Procida's rehearsal is interrupted, as Guy de Montfort (played by Michael Volle) and his French soldiers burst in with guns, before forcing themselves on the screaming ballet dancers. Before anyone objects to this "gross thwarting of Verdi's noble humanity" or whatever the objection normally is, De Montfort's abduction and rape of the nameless woman is not merely Herheim's interpolation. In Act III, eighteen years after this opening scene, De Montfort admits to regretting the rape (though then says that withholding a child from a rapist father is a worse action!). The scene is also entirely apt to the situation that most Parisian ballet dancers found themselves in Verdi's time - i.e. sexual prey for rich French men.
We see the result of this rape, the child Henri's development from gestation, to infant, to boy, to young man in a matter of seconds - he symbolises (and is) the bastard offspring of a forced union between French and Italian art, but already the ghosts that haunt de Montfort have appeared. In the opening chorus, the French troops prepare to sing, but the Sicilian peasants on stage usurp their moment and start singing their own song - they are the stage performers in this after all. The occupied Sicilians are lead by Hélène (played by Marina Poplavskaya), who comes on garbed in black, clutching the decaying head of her murdered brother - a literal token of her grief and vendetta against her captors. She calls on them to rise up. In Act II we see a wedding interrupted by more French brutality and abduction (the scene presages the Act V wedding scene which is thwarted by a mirrored act of violence, this time the Sicilians acting against the French). Again Hélène calls the Sicilian men into action against their oppressors, and a plot is hatched with Procida to murder de Montfort at the masked ball. The plot is foiled by Henri's attachment to his father and the plotters are condemned to death, though Henri is spared because de Montfort wants him as an heir.
The executioner is the same little boy that de Montfort sentimentally imagines during his Act III reflection/regret aria. Again the boy symbolises the cause of the conflict and murders - the unnatural offspring of separate cultures. The execution is of course stayed by de Montfort when the adult Henri's love for Hélène means that he's willing to die for her. De Montfort then gives his blessing to the wedding of Henri and Hélène. It seems the nations are united peacefully, with the French men now amorously courting the Italian women, French patrons and Italian artists reconciled. The French operatic audience applaud appreciatively at this happy ending and enjoy the wedding scene divertimento that follows. But there is one plot yet to unfold: Procida plans to use the wedding to signal a massacre of the French, and warns Hélène of this. She realises that she cannot go through with the wedding during a dream sequence in which Procida, now wearing a black and red ball gown that both mirrors Hélène's wedding dress and recalls her Act I mourning regalia, murders Sicilians and French alike at the wedding party. He cannot and will not let go of the past. Despite Hélène's protestations, de Montfort abruptly pronounces the young couple married, and the opera ends. Then we, the real audience, get the search light treatment which I have already admitted to finding perplexing. A strange ending.
The greatest strength of Herheim's direction it seems to me is that he so obviously reads the score and follows its clues. There is hardly ever a jarring mismatch of image and sound, and if there is, it will be for some very obvious dramatic effect. The risk is that it turns into the "Herheim show" and we lose the original work beneath the multi layered coups de theatres, but that doesn't happen here, and he transforms Verdi's problematic, transitional opera into a very entertaining and imaginative evening.
Poplavskaya by comparison has a much more focussed timbre, and the three registers are each powerful and full. She has real trouble connecting the registers however, and her top is unstable at every volume, painfully so when singing quietly. This is the best I've ever seen her perform though - there was a real commitment to characterisation, both dramatically and musically, and rhythmically she can't be faulted (important in Verdi). What I liked about this performance is that she endeavoured to use the voice colouristically, and although she forced too much in the chest register, almost shouting at times, better too much than too little in my book. Vocal imperfections notwithstanding, she was a really great presence in Acts I and II, spitting out her lines with abandon and sulking with her decapitated head. As expected, her coloratura went awry in the bolero, but at least she was in time and the bottoms of those runs were fully supported. Though far from perfect, overall I would say it was the more successful performance of the showpiece of the two, despite two severe vocal mishaps (an unintended glissando and some clucked/squealed high notes). The previous aria, with its famous descent from a high C# to the F# below middle C was predictably dodged by both sopranos, but neither could sing what they'd altered the line to either, which was disappointing. All in all, really strange casting choices. Maybe it's as simple as both being cheap to hire and willing to work with an out there director?
Bryan Hymel was his old (young) dependable self as Henri, dispatching phrase after rock solid phrase as if dramatic Verdian Tenor roles are nothing to stress over. I'm not averse to the timbre, as I know many others are, so I find his performances enjoyable, though they do err on the side of the generic. He's young still for this repertoire (he's 34 and has sung four huge tenor roles at the ROH in the last year and a half) so has time to develop as an artist - his Rusalka Prince is still the finest I've seen him, and perhaps the Czech repertoire might be a fertile avenue of exploration for him. And one day a Tannhauser? The combination of high centre of the voice, real control and heroic weight is very uncommon.
A fun evening, with a few thought provoking moments. Mileage will vary based on one's liking of lesser Verdi, and how far one can forgive a diva's vocal shortcomings. It's mainly a pleasure to see a director so well attuned to a score, whatever the score's ultimate merits may be.
All photos copyright ROH/Bill Cooper