Les Vêpres Siciliennes; Grand Opera in five acts, music composed by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Eugène Scribe & Charles Duveyrier, sung in French with English surtitles, directed by Stefan Herheim, conducted by Maurizio Benini, Royal Opera, 12th October 2017, reviewed by LESLIE JONES
Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Verdi’s first new commission for the Paris Opéra, was premiered on 13th June 1855. Given its French audience, it had a somewhat provocative theme, to wit, “Sicilian nationalist fervour in the face of French oppression” (Sarah Hibberd, ‘The Creation of Les Vêpres siciliennes’, official programme). Indeed, the French occupying forces in Sicily are depicted throughout as drunkards and libertines who treat the local women as the victor’s spoils. In this, the first revival of Stefan Herheim’s 2013 Royal Opera production, the French Governor Guy de Montfort (baritone Michael Volle) sets the tone by raping a Sicilian woman (on stage). In due course, she will give birth to his illegitimate son Henri (tenor Bryan Hymel) enabling Verdi to address the putative conflict between loyalty to father and loyalty to fatherland.
Revenge is arguably Verdi’s favourite theme. Its leading avatar in Les Vêpres Siciliennes is Hélène, sister of the late Duke Frédéric of Austria, who was murdered at the behest of the French Governor. In this performance, the role was played by lyric soprano Malin Byström, who cut an imposing and intimidating figure, dressed all in black and carrying her brother’s decomposing head. Henri, it transpires, loves Hélène. But when he swears to avenge Frédéric, an outcome that would entail the death of his father, he has not yet learnt the identity of his parents. World-weary Guy de Montfort, indicatively, feels re-born when he belatedly discovers that he has a son. We have referred elsewhere to the Oedipal elements in some of Verdi’s other works, notably La Traviata (see QR March 21st, 2016) and Il Trovatore (QR, July 5th, 2016).
Les Vêpres Siciliennes contains some pertinent content at this time of resurgent populism and nationalism. The Sicilian patriot Proscina, powerfully portrayed by the Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott, embodies political fanaticism. He would happily force his fellow countrymen to be free. A manipulative and repellent character, he considers his compatriots expendable and wants the French to commit further, useful outrages. They duly oblige, abusing Sicilian brides on the way to their weddings (Act II).
With a complex plot and a running time of four hours, Les Vêpres Siciliennes has its longueurs. Yet it was still surprising to learn that this was only the ninth performance at Royal Opera. On this occasion, there were four compelling vocal performances (although Bryan Hymel’s bel canto was perhaps a tad over ripe). The opulent sets, based on the Salle Le Peletier, where the opera was first performed, were on an epic scale, and there were historically authentic details in the production, as when ballerinas were depicted as the victims of sexual abuse. As Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach observes, “Ballerinas, [historically] …became courtesans [to]…the subscribers to the opera” (‘What’s Past is Prologue’, official programme). Serial sexual offenders, please take note.
Dr Leslie Jones is a Critic and the Editor of QR