A mural depicting Etna erupting is the only hint of Sicily in Stefan Herheim’s opulent staging of Les Vêpres siciliennes, returning to Covent Garden for the first time since the Verdi bicentenary celebrations in 2013. Composed just two years after La traviata, which is guaranteed to fill opera houses season after season, Vêpres is rarely performed, especially in its original French version. Uncut, it’s a creaky five act vehicle, but Verdi’s music often exhilarates, especially the duets between the French governor, Guy de Montfort, and the young Sicilian who turns out to be his son, Henri.

Erwin Schrott (Procida) and dancers © ROH | Bill Cooper
Erwin Schrott (Procida) and dancers
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Herheim updates the opera from 13th-century Palermo – the original plot concerns the Sicilian uprising against their French oppressors – to the time and location of its première: Paris 1855, specifically to the Salle le Peletier, predecessor of today’s Palais Garnier. Here the French-Sicilian struggles are replaced by artistic rivalries. Jean Procida, the leading Sicilian rebel, becomes a ballet master (Erwin Schrott in his dandiest element) in bitter dispute with the manager of the opéra-ballet, Montfort (burly baritone Michael Volle).

Erwin Schrott (Procida) and dancer © ROH | Bill Cooper
Erwin Schrott (Procida) and dancer
© ROH | Bill Cooper

As a metaphor for how artists are exploited by society, it’s heavy-handed but often makes for magnetic viewing. During the overture (one of Verdi’s very best), Herheim relates the backstory to the parentage of Henri – the result of Montfort raping a member of the corps (pregnant dancers reappear to prick Montfort’s conscience during his Act 3 aria “Au sein de la puissance”). Gesine Völlm’s costumes and Philipp Fürhofer’s sets are lavish, the ballet rehearsal scenes plucked straight from a Degas painting, so it’s doubly ironic that André de Jong’s choreography is often galumphing and that Herheim then cuts the entire half-hour ballet, de rigueur for Parisian Grand Opéra in the mid-19th century. However, Verdi himself was more than happy to jettison the ballet when adapting his opera for the Italian stage and at least it ensures we’re out of the House before 11pm!

We are often thrust into the Peletier’s auditorium, the chorus staring out with a degree of detachment from their plush boxes. A winged cherub – a Herheim trope – appears first as executioner, then as Cupid. Herheim turns the wedding day massacre into a masked ball which ends with a psychotic Procida – in black ball-gown and skull mask – feigning to stab the revellers with a fleur-de-lys at the end of a French flag. But Herheim bungles the denouement, lowering a backstage lighting rig to blind the audience. It’s never less than a dazzling spectacle though and impresses by its sheer sumptuousness and chutzpah.

Erwin Schrott (Procida) and Malin Byström (Hélène) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Erwin Schrott (Procida) and Malin Byström (Hélène)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

All three male principals from last time round return to their roles – all in even better voice. Bryan Hymel was on thrilling form as Henri, his vibrant tenor throwing out top notes with ease and power. There was charm too in his joyous “La brise souffle au loin”, his wedding day response to Hélène’s boléro. Erwin Schrott’s smouldering bass caressed Procida’s “Et toi, Palerme” with touching nobility and he rose to the campery of the staging with élan. Michael Volle, a gritty Wagnerian, lacks a smooth legato, yet he delves deep into the character of Montfort – the most interesting role in the opera by far – and capped his aria with a beautifully soft final note. Hymel and Volle were both superb in the terrific father-son duets.

Michael Volle (Montfort) and Bryan Hymel (Henri) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Michael Volle (Montfort) and Bryan Hymel (Henri)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Four years ago, the production was beset by casting issues surrounding the leading lady. Vêpres follows Traviata directly in the Verdi canon and I’m convinced that a strong Violetta capable of tackling “Sempre libera” should be able to take on the role of Hélène. She was performed by Malin Byström here, a fine soprano but not, alas, a natural Verdian. Her tone was on the dark, plummy side (and occasionally south of the note), but she delivered a tender “Ami, le coeur d'Hélène” and tackled the coloratura of the Act 5 boléro “Merci, jeunes amies” with spirit. Rachele Stanisci, flown over to sing from the side of the stage while an indisposed Lianna Haroutounian mimed four years ago, gets two performances in her own right at the end of this run.

I’ve rarely seen Maurizio Benini so animated in the Covent Garden pit, drawing committed playing from the orchestra, while the Royal Opera Chorus raised the rafters. I still regret that plans to involve The Royal Ballet fell through, given the emphasis Herheim places on dance. Nevertheless, his production is a (slightly surrealist) treat and one Verdians won’t want to miss.

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