Welsh National Opera 2019-20 Review: Les Vêpres Siciliennes

David Pountney Offers Adventurous Staging of Laborious Verdi Grand Opera

By Benjamin Poore
(Credit: Johan Person)

“Les vêpres siciliennes” is one of Verdi’s few substantive forays into the bloated dimensions of Meyerbeerian grand opera, and less frequently performed than its iconic companions “Aida” and “Don Carlo.” David Pountney’s new production of Verdi’s 1855 story of revolution, love and duty, created in collaboration with the Theater Bonn, was hotly anticipated as it marked the culmination of Welsh National Opera’s Verdi triptych, following last year’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.”

The opera treads a familiar track to others by the composer that explore the degradation of political oppression as well the implications of revolutionary and state violence. Verdi clearly calls back to Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” in his depiction of prisoners and captors; the long lost son in protagonist Henri likewise anticipates the conundrums of duty and family explored in “Simon Boccanegra.”

A Bold Production

The world of Pountney’s “Les vêpres siciliennes” is half in love with death, though not the easeful Romantic oblivion of “Tristan,” more the obscene death-drive of revolutionary martyrdom and the grim theatre of state power. Insurgent Procida was feverishly impatient to martyr himself for his country, beaming with joy as he collapsed amid the corpses in the final scene. In Montfort’s study one of the abducted local brides is tied up and wheeled across the stage; she returns lashed and bloodied as Montfort reaches the tenderest part of his aria about his long-lost son Henri. Pountney does not let us forget that even operatic displays of affection can be cynical spectacles too.

Pountney relishes the grotesque – perhaps he’s underlining something about the excesses of grand opera itself. The Act three ballet is turned into the ghoulish backstory of Montfort, Henri’s mother and childhood, eerily backlit by fetid green glow and danced jerkily by skeletons in pirate hats (the superb National Dance Company of Wales took over at this juncture). The danced avatar for Henri does Capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art dance form, as if to underline the anarchic, rebellious energies powering this opera. Their bleak comedy returns in the more uncomfortable tableaux of Act five, as the scrubbing Sicilians of the opening scene return as topless zombies who anoint Henri with blood as they dress him for his wedding, one that culminates “Game of Thrones-style” in a marital massacre.

The pantomime dimensions give us the spectacle obliged by the form but render it strangely absurd too. The show opens with regimented rows of the conquered scrubbing the floors for the presiding French, who loom lazily over them on enormous raised chairs, like tennis umpires from hell; Montfort will also be wheeled in on one to quell burgeoning thoughts of rebellion. These outsized structures return in different and increasingly strange guises: enormous grim reapers, like something out of Terry Pratchett, wield huge scythes ready to lop off the heads of Procida and Hélène; in the Act five wedding they become statues of king and queen, beneath which Procida reveals, at the moment of the massacre, ludicrous cartoon sticks of dynamite that billowed dry ice.

Perhaps Pountney channels Verdi’s own ambivalence towards the Paris opera, and the form itself. Verdi wanted to outshine his hated rival Meyerbeer, and the ambitious and inventive composer welcomed the Parisians’ craving for novelty, but he disdained the culture of Halévy and the grand opera too. “Les vêpres siciliennes” is more adept at the brilliant duets and accompanied dialogues that would make his recent masterpieces “La Traviata” and “Rigoletto” so distinctive and intimate, over and above the conventions of this hidebound artistic form, with its double chorus and ballerinas.

Pountney’s production may too offer indirect comment on kitsch gigantism of authoritarian pageant and indulgence, represented by the occupying forces’ Ancien Régime costumes and a lavish dining table laden with the topless kidnapped girls paraded at the climax of Act three. What Pountney offers the audience is a kind of anti-spectacle, ironic and absurdist, which dials into his cartoonish directorial style. The enormous black frames that are wheeled about the stage epitomize this: monumental and coolly imposing, white light glowing around their inner edges, they are abyssal and isolating; Hélène first enters imprisoned in one of these, as if in a vitrine or painting.

As they are repositioned to create new scenes – most dramatically and effectively in Act five, as Henri literally feels the walls closing in the prison – they seem to represent anonymous dark forces of fate and duty that buffet these tiny individuals.

(Credit: Johan Person)

A Mixed Bag

Carlo Rizzi is an experienced Verdian, and whipped plenty of excitement in the pit and amongst the excellent WNO chorus, particularly in the climactic scene and in Act one’s first large chorus number.

But he needed to put the pedal to the metal more often to ease the audience through the work’s slack passages, for which Verdi must shoulder the blame; the Act three’s ballet featured pretty woodwind playing but, despite Pountney’s narrative intervention in it, still dithered.

Diction across the main roles was fuzzy, and librettist Eugène Scribe’s French was rather swallowed up by the theater’s warm acoustic, and hard to pick out when the music crept above the stave. Anush Hovhannisyan imbued Hélène with a dark authority and steely determination; she was particularly effective in rousing the people of Sicily at the outset of the opera.

Her voice is richer and more luscious than the coloratura demands of the role might call for, leading to some less than glittering passagework, but her power and presence were amongst the most convincing onstage: she was the determined powerhouse, vocally and dramatically, of the breathtaking final scenes.

Wotjech Gierlach’s Procida was vocally robust, if lacking in color, and his hefty voice had little difficulty cutting through Verdi’s extravagant orchestration across the role’s two octaves. His “Et toi, Palerme” was certainly ardent but wanted for warmth.

Giorgio Cauduro’s Guy de Montfort boasted plenty of confident top notes and metallic squillo but also wanted for subtlety, though his Act three aria “Au sein de la puissance” featured a desolate lyricism and understated pathos. He clearly relished the moustache-twirling villainy of the role that it veers into later in the opera, dropping the early glimpses of the conflicted patriarch’s humanity for naked, tyrannical manipulation.

Henri is a thankless role, with many arduous technical hurdles; Jung Soo Yun was untiring throughout and his top notes were remarkably consistent, with his Act five “La brise souffle au loin” deliriously sweeter than one might expect at this late stage in the evening.

As the show went on though there was a tendency towards nasality, particularly on certainly, and his brightness has a tendency to turn acidic. Sharper direction could’ve made more of the central conflict he faces in the opera – whether we are meant to see his as weak and vacillating (in comparison to  Hélène and Procida) or tragically torn – in order to deliver a bigger hit of pathos.

Bold programming from WNO, and a distinctive approach to an opera that is hard to pull off – but ultimately in need of more fireworks and frenzy.


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