Les Vepres Siciliennes review at Royal Opera House, London – ‘an exceptional cast’
Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s international career took off in 2009 with an acclaimed Parsifal at Bayreuth, which employed Wagner’s opera as a way of exploring the complex and partially tainted history of the festival itself.
Similarly, his debut production for the Royal Opera (2013) – here presented in its first revival – utilises visuals that refer to the Paris Opera in 1855, when Verdi’s opera premiered there. References to the theatre’s famous ballet company, whose female members dance regularly throughout The Sicilian Vespers, are also a constant – somewhat ironically, given that the score’s main extended formal ballet sequence is actually cut; in any case it scarcely needs pointing out that the issues in the opera are somewhat bigger than the history of any particular opera house, however distinguished.
Herheim’s direction is self-advertising, occasionally naughty and once or twice outrageous – but you cannot take your eyes off it. Perverse or not, the result is theatrically brilliant, while the central performances and relationships, though admittedly drawn with a broad brush-stroke, are conceived along the right lines.
More crucially the main roles are all impressively sung; indeed the general vocal standard over a lengthy and demanding evening is sky-high. Erwin Schrott sings magnificently as the fanatical Sicilian patriot Procida, with Bryan Hymel tireless as his compromised associate Henri and Malin Bystrom (the only one of the four principals new to the show this time around) technically and emotionally assured as the Duchess Helene.
Michael Volle has to work harder as the bullying French governor Guy de Montfort, but despite some effortful moments he more than earns his position amidst an outstanding quartet.
Maurizio Benini conducts, with less sheer panache than Antonio Pappano brought to the original, but the company’s choral and orchestral forces are on focused form.