“Enough work to kill a bull!” was Verdi’s complaint about the effort of writing for the Paris Opéra. Les Vêpres siciliennes was the composer’s first original work for the French capital and he had to meet high demands – a work in five acts, full of spectacle, which included the obligatory ballet in Act 3 so that the gentlemen from the Jockey Club could ogle the pretty ballerinas. It makes for a lengthy evening. “Enough work to kill a bull!” could just as well describe the challenges of staging it. Welsh National Opera has risen to that challenge.

Act 1, Les Vêpres siciliennes
© Johan Persson

David Pountney’s staging is the third of his “Verdi trilogy” for the company, employing the same basic set by Raimund Bauer. Forget the opulence of Stefan Herheim’s lavish Royal Opera production, set in the Salle Peletier; this is Verdi on a tight budget. The mobile walls of La forza del destino and Un ballo in maschera have been stripped back to three frames – often lit in glaring neon – which wheel and rotate and keep the action flowing.

And my, there’s a lot of action to contain. Hector Berlioz was a big fan, but Vêpres never really took off. By 1855 the libretto, by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier, was already twenty years old, (having previously been rejected by Halévy and then part-set by Donizetti as Le duc d'Albe), so it already felt dated. And why Verdi thought revising a tale about a Dutch uprising against the Spanish by transferring the action to the 1282 Sicilian massacre of their French overlords was a good idea for a Parisian audience, is anyone’s guess.

Wojtek Gierlach (Procida), Anush Hovhannisyan (Hélène) and Jung Soo Yun (Henri)
© Johan Persson

Costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca has the French as stuffed prigs, dressed in crimson or royal blue uniforms, the military officers perched on tall chairs resembling those used by tennis umpires. We know the Sicilians are downtrodden, because the dining table wheeled in for Governor Guy de Montfort’s banquet is festooned with fruit, candelabras and the bloodied bodies of the locals. Subtle.

Credit to Pountney for including the Act 3 ballet – not a “Four Seasons” divertissement here, but a Hamlet-like dumbshow in which Montfort is confronted with his past. A woman rises from her coffin, partnered by three dancing skeletons, and we see the story of her encounter with a young Montfort, resulting in the birth of Henri (our tenor, a Sicilian rebel who has just discovered that he’s the governor’s long-lost son). Dancers from the National Dance Company Wales bring off this lengthy ballet (there are a few judicious cuts) very well and it’s the act which most brings Pountney’s staging to life. Montfort, visibly disturbed, lifts the woman’s body out of her coffin and carries her around, while Henri warns him of the impending revolt. The rebels are entrapped in red ribbon and Bauer’s empty frames are now lined with wire to become the prison where Hélène (Henri’s lover) and Jean Procida (leader of the revolt) are incarcerated.

Marine Tournet (dancer) and Giorgio Caoduro (Montfort)
© Johan Persson

Towering executioners coast in doing slow motion baton twirls with their axes and semi-naked dancers in bridal veils scrub the floor and daub Hélène and Henri in blood before their wedding (a strategic match by Montfort, unaware that the wedding bells are the signal for the Sicilians to launch their massacre). Giant effigies of a king and queen dominate the wedding scene, concealing sticks of dynamite that should lead to an explosive ending… but all we got was a vague shot of steam, a damp squib if ever there was one.

There was plenty of drama in the pit, though. Carlo Rizzi drew fantastic, red-blooded playing from the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, giving Verdi’s score all the drive and sweep it requires. And there are few choruses as fine as WNO’s, rightly among the nominees in this year’s International Opera Awards. But many of the vocal performances on opening night were disappointing, apart from Giorgio Caoduro’s noble baritone as Montfort. Caoduro spun long lines in his Act 3 aria “Au sein de la puissance” and he was the only singer whose French was up to the mark.

Act 5 finale, Les Vêpres siciliennes
© Johan Persson

Jung Soo Yun and Anush Hovhannisyan are vocally miscast. Both tackle treacherous roles – Henri’s music has a high tessitura and requires a tenor able to float head notes effortlessly, while Hélène’s sits deep until the sparkling boléro in Act 5, full of testing coloratura. Jung Soo Yun was often exciting, but his Henri was coarsely sung, while Hovhannisyan’s lower notes sounded hollow and curdled, almost resorting to Sprechstimme, and she also suffered from intonation problems. Polish bass Wojtek Gierlach had plenty of vocal presence as Procida, although his diction was woolly. Fingers crossed that vocal issues are ironed out for WNO’s tour because this is a rare chance to catch Verdi’s epic.