It started so thrillingly, director Stefan Herheim pulling off a theatrical coup which simultaneously fleshed out the opera’s back story whilst casting us body and soul into the gloriously opulent world of French opera-ballet. But as Verdi’s sprawling Parisian epic lost its dramatic impetus and sense of direction so Herheim and aspects of his staging descended into bathos. The final moments – the dismantling of the stage mechanism, if you like – though superficially exciting, seemed like a familiar metaphor too far. You can blind the audience with lights but still not still not pull the wool over their eyes.
But, my goodness, that opening scene. It was like we’d showed up on the wrong night and been offered Swan Lake with Verdi instead of Tchaikovsky. But in this beautiful mirrored and gilded ballet room the corps were frozen in time, only warming to life at the Ballet Master’s bidding. He, we later discover is the Sicilian patriot Jean Procida incognito as Erwin Schrott. But that’s another story. As Verdi launches the turbulent allegro of his overture the French military burst in exploding the creative calm, the ethereal beauty, of the scene to rape and pillage and occupy. There’s the nub of the plot right there but Herheim is not done and graphically reveals in a poetic tableau how the presiding Governor of Sicily and villain of the piece, Guy de Montfort (Michael Volle), had a son, born out of rape, who was destined to become his nemesis. And with that the ballet room recedes to open the stage and transport us deep into auditorium of a theatre just like the one we’re sitting in, indeed an extension of the one we’re sitting in, where the show is a cheerful Sicilian idyll and the audience an audience of occupiers – as in Vive la France!
And so Herheim and his marvellous set designer Philipp Fürhofer have neatly reconciled the plotline of the opera with the era in which it was written and further ruminated on the idea that culture is invariably a casualty of political conflict and duly violated while national identities wrestle for supremacy. And the opera is barely past the overture. I was pretty much sold already and stunned certainly at the theatricality of it all: the boldness of the visual picture, the sweeping sureness of the blocking where the entire ensemble advanced as one. The set up of the Governor’s masked ball, for instance, in which Venetian maskers of death drifted in from the lake as a portent of impending tragedy.
But into all this splendour a business prevailed and a campness intruded. The child of violent rape queasily became the cherubic angel of death at one point and when the French military mockingly turned itself into the corps de ballet I was thinking Billy Elliot and not Vepres Siciliennes. It was only a matter of time before Erwin Schrott appeared in a dress.
I’m not entirely sure what he (Schrott) thought he was doing in this show – but whilst one sees the physical charisma and hears the quality and booming size of the voice there is a fundamental lack of discipline in this performer and a need to produce “a turn” whenever he can. Everything is just that little bit overcooked, a bit “pantomimic”, be it the fayness of the ballet master or the swaggering outrage of the patriot – and the singing in turn is pushed so hard to make an impression that a number like his showy “Palermo” aria ends up being horribly pitchy.
Another major problem with the piece is that the revelation of the Sicilian hero, Henri (Bryan Hymel), being revealed as the aforementioned son of the Governor is laid down almost literally hours before the end of the piece and the entire last two acts are in fact variations on will he/won’t he have to sacrifice his love for Hélène (Lianna Haroutounian). Operas are made of less, of course, but the scale of this piece and the dramatic emphasis it places on emotive duets with ariosa-like diversions incorporated within them makes some pretty unreasonable demands on the performers.
Even the indefatigable Bryan Hymel (Henri) sounded like there was simply nothing left in the tank by the time we reached the last act. His is the biggest ask of all, set in a very high tessitura, and all he could do was power on regardless, fighting to keep the pitch up, turning tiredness into anxiety and one split top note into anguish. How splendid he was, though, in the key duet with Michael Volle (De Montfort). That is the fulcrum of the opera and Volle, too, was impressive in it. Indeed he more or less walked off with the show singing with great authority and an impressive range of colours, not least in the head voice.
Lianna Haroutounian was substituting for the (again) indisposed Marina Poplavskaya and with a dusky Verdian plangency to the voice could hardly have been a more different singing animal in the role. She had her moments, dispatching the fiery coloratura of the earlier scenes with an Abigaille-like plunges to a somewhat overworked chest register. She was lovely, too, with Hymel in the later duet of heavenly redemption. But what on earth was the problem in her celebratory showstopper in the last act where she breathlessly lagged behind Antonio Pappano in phrase after phrase and seemed quite incapable of getting her voice around any of it? Tiredness? Or a clear case of being technically over-parted?
Pappano gave all of his conviction to a piece he so plainly believes in – and I believe he’s right in thinking that the colour and ethos of this piece resides in the original French version and to cut it in any significant way would only further disconnect its hefty proportions and (such as it is) sense of direction. So it is what it is and there are undeniably thrilling moments. So, too, in Stefan Herheim’s direction. I look forward to seeing more of his work – but he overworked this one and ultimately succumbed to the inherent and insoluble problems of a deeply flawed piece.