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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Les vêpres siciliennes - grand opéra in five acts [182.00]
Hélène - Lianna Haroutounian
Henri - Bryan Hymel
Procida - Erwin Schrott
Guy de Montfort - Michael Volle
Ninetta - Michelle Daly
Thibault - Neal Cooper
Daniéli - Nicholas Darmanin
Mainfroid - Jung Soo Yun
Robert - Jihoon Kim
Le Sire de Béthune - Jean Teitgen
Le Comte de Vaudemont - Jeremy White
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
Stage Director - Stefan Herheim
Dramaturg - Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Set design - Philipp Fürhofer
Costume design - Gesine Völlm
Lighting design - Anders Poll
Choreography - André de Jong
Video direction - Rhodri Huw
rec. live, October 2013 Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Picture Format: 1080i, 16.9 filmed in High Definition
Sound Format:
a) LPCM Stereo 2.0ch, 48kHz/24bit
b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch, 48kHz
Sung in French with on-screen subtitles available in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Bonus content: The Making of Les vêpres siciliennes [6.19]; The ballet in Les vêpres siciliennes [3.17]
WARNER CLASSICS Blu-ray 2564 616431 [182.00 + 9.36 bonus content]

One of Verdi’s rarely staged works, Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers) this production was filmed live in October 2013 during its première run. From 2013, the year of Verdi’s bicentenary, this was the ROH’s first ever staging of Les vêpres siciliennes for which the Norwegian director Herheim on his UK debut won the prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production. It received an international audience with live relay to cinemas in October 2013.

Les vêpres was written in 1855 for the Paris Opéra to a French libretto by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier from their 1838 work 'Le duc d'Albe'. Coming after Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata, and before the first version of Simon Boccanegra, Verdi relished the opportunity to write on such an imposing scale for the Paris stage. Although a great success at its Paris première in 1855 the opera, albeit with occasional longueurs such as its rambling plot, failed to establish itself in the repertory in Paris. It could be said that it was seminal in the transformation of French grand opéra, a genre that after the 1848 revolution suffered decline. Money was tight and productions had to pay their way quickly. Those that didn’t were quickly withdrawn and replaced with warhorses such as Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable and Les Huguenots, and Halévy’s La Juive. A Paris revival of Les vêpres in 1863 failed to catch fire and productions today are best known in the 1861 Italian version I vespri siciliani.

At this point an outline of the opera might prove helpful. Sicily has been occupied by French forces. The duchess Hélène is held hostage by Guy de Montfort, the viceroy of Sicily and leader of the French force of soldiers who has executed her brother duke Frederick. In her thirst for revenge Hélène looks to leading Sicilian patriots Jean Procida and Henri. Hélène has promised her love to Henri if he swears to avenge her brother’s death. Unknown to Henri he is actually the son of Montfort who had raped a Sicilian woman.

Herheim and set designer Philipp Fürhofer have remodelled the traditional mise-en-scène moving the action forward from Palermo in French-occupied Sicily in the Middle Ages (1282 to be exact) to the Paris Opéra explicitly at the Salle le Peletier where the opera was premièred in 1855. Herheim’s spectacular vision takes the struggle between the Sicilians and the French invaders into the lavishly grandiose world of Parisian society with its political intrigues, manipulation and treachery. Herheim has cast the invaded Sicilians as “the restive performers” in the opera house with the occupying French serving as their audience viewing from the parterre and balcony boxes. Theatre within theatre sets are currently in vogue but are certainly nothing new. Following the reviews of the ROH première and the live relay to cinemas in 2013 it was clear that some of the complex production was generally bewildering especially identifying, through the haze in the stage action, what is reality and what is imagined. What is the significance of the boy dressed as winged cherub with his lyre and earlier wielding the executioner’s axe? What is the point of some soldiers wearing tutus, why is the skull-masked Procida dressed in a ball-gown and why was he stabbing people with the sharp end of the French flag’s pole?

The substantial ballet in the third act that was de rigueur in productions at the Paris Opéra has been cut out. Herheim and choreographer André de Jonghas have, in the manner of a Degas painting, interspersed small dance scenes for the ballet troupe at points in each act of the opera “to develop the story through dance and through movement.” A few months earlier Herheim’s first choice choreographer Johan Kobborg left the production for “artistic differences”. The dancers of the Royal Ballet went with him so evidently the ballet scenes were danced by freelance forces.

As the overture unfurls the drama opens in an immediately controversial and unsettling manner. Montfort and a company of troops push ballet-master Jean Procida aside and march into a ballet rehearsal at the opera house. Montfort seizes one of the ballerinas and rapes her in the centre of the stage; she turns out to be Henri’s mother. It's an appalling act but one not uncommon among brutal occupying forces. The controversy of sexual violence continues in opera in general and at the ROH in particular. As recently as June 2015 director Damiano Michieletto’s production included a now infamous gang rape scene in Guillaume Tell.

German baritone Michael Volle excels as a physically imposing Guy de Montfort, the intimating and powerful viceroy of Sicily, who becomes tormented by his actions. From Act 3 Montfort’s affecting soliloquy Au sein de la puissance bemoaning his personal isolation and the emotional impact of his power is convincingly conveyed by Volle. His singing evinces character and pathos. Acting as ballet master is Procida the fanatical patriotic Sicilian leader played by Erwin Schrott the Uruguayan bass-baritone. The swaggering Procida wore a strapping on his leg from being physically beaten by French troops at the time the ballerina was raped. From act 2 comes Procida’s renowned showpiece Et toi, Palerme. This is sung in the elation of his return to his beloved home city. Although a touch untidy, Schrott displays a rich expressive tone with unnerving undercurrents.

Noblewoman Hélène, a pro-Sicilian separatist, is played by Lianna Haroutounian who was rather thrown in at the deep end. For the first three performances the Armenian soprano Haroutounian stepped in a short notice to replace Marina Poplavskaya who was ill. Haroutounian had done a similar thing earlier in the year to replace Anja Harteros who withdrew as Elizabeth in Don Carlo. Hélène is a typically fragile Verdi heroine who in this production for most of the time wore what looked like an unflattering white nightie. From Act 1 on the anniversary of her brother’s execution Hélène is dressed in mourning black and holds a caste of her brother’s decapitated head. In front of a crowd of locals Haroutounian ardently delivers her cavatina Au sein des mers, reaching her high notes with ease. She can be seen rapidly gaining in assurance. Haroutounian’s commitment is admirable but she appears to find the coloratura of Hélène’s boléro Merci, jeunes amis rather daunting.

Resolute American operatic tenor Bryan Hymel stands out in the role of the quick-tempered Henri who finds out he is the base son of Montfort. A true highlight of the opera is Hymel’s rendition of the sombre romance O jour de peine et de sufferance from Act 4. In the aria he wonders how he can live with the dilemma of Hélène’s revulsion and anger. Grief-stricken Hymel responds splendidly to the demands of this exposed tenor aria and sings with unfailing passionate expression. By the way, O jour de peine is on Hymel’s recent Warner collection of French Opera Arias entitled Héroïque. Mightily impressive too is the grand duet from Act 3 between Montfort and Henri his newly discovered son. This is described by Verdi biographer Julian Budden as “one of Verdi’s pivotal duets”. It is sung here by Volle and Hymel with rare integrity and is intensely affecting. Pappano conducts with assurance, drawing steadfast and dramatic playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Pappano demonstrates a palpable rapport both with the solo singers and with the chorus who sing magnificently.

The video direction is excellent utilising cameras actively and working hard to avoid monotony. Brief coverage is given to Pappano taking his place in the pit but there's nothing of the orchestra playing. Ideally I would have preferred some occasional shots of the auditorium to assist the impression of audience involvement. Entirely satisfying on this Blu-ray disc is the vividly clear High definition picture quality and recorded sound. We are offered a choice between Stereo or Surround Sound with the engineering team producing excellent sonics. As this is a live performance expect the volume of the singing to fluctuate occasionally as the main characters move around the stage. I enjoyed the bonus content ‘The Making of Les vêpres siciliennes’ and ‘The ballet in Les vêpres siciliennes’, short documentaries that are both interesting and informative.

A lavishly theatrical spectacle and a musical indulgence well worth experiencing.

Michael Cookson



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