Vapid Vespers

21 Oct

I’d be the first to accept that Les Vêpres Siciliennes isn’t Verdi’s greatest or most convincing opera.  But I’ve had a fondness for it since the 1984 ENO production and listen quite often to the Muti recording (in Italian, I know, but with on form Studer, Merritt, Zancanaro and Furlanetto, should I complain?).  What I find most interesting about it is the division of loyalties of a son discovering who his father is and feeling required to abandon his friends who are about to assassinate an unpleasant tyrant.  Throw in Verdi’s interest in liberty and politics, a feisty mourning heroine and an implacable leader and there is interesting operatic potential there.

We don’t get to see it enough, and so I was happy that the ROH were finally going to get round to it.  I wobbled slightly when I saw the cast, none of whom would feature in my first few attempts at an ideal cast (even in today’s straitened times for Verdi voices).  I wobbled even more when I read the advance publicity about Stefan Herheim’s production – set in a world of ballet and the Paris Opera.  Nevertheless, I booked for the second performance on 21st October and was greatly buoyed by the generally very positive reviews.

Originally Marina Poplavskaya was announced for Hélène.  Then she fell ill and it was announced that Lianna Haroutounian would sing the first three performances.  I’d enjoyed her as Elisabeth, so fine.  When we get there we find that Haroutounian, in her turn, had fallen ill and that Poplavskaya had made a speedy recovery and was ready to go on.  Kasper Holten said that this was the first time he’d had to make an announcement that the cast was as advertised and thanked Poplavskaya for saving the show.  Does that suggest that, if she hadn’t, the evening would have been cancelled?  I do wish she hadn’t felt ready.  I would then have got my money back and avoided the sitting through the first two and a quarter hours of a desperately disappointing evening.

Where to begin?  You will either like the Herheim production or you won’t.  It’s set in an opera house with a ballet troupe in Paris at the time of the premiere.  During the overture there’s a mime of the story so far which seems to involve the rape of the ballerinas by the vicious French soldiers and aristocrats, one of whom is Montfort.  As the opera starts, it looks as though the Sicilians are the chorus of the opera house with the French troops as the audience.  Lord knows who Hélène, Henri and Procida are in all this.  Herheim says that he listens to the music.  So he obviously thinks that the flute accompaniment to Procida’s entrance aria is like Mendelsohn or Adam’s delicate ballet music and so we have the ballerinas doing their routine to it.  There are some points when he obviously thinks that Verdi’s music is a bit clichéd, so the ballerinas do clichéd moves to make the point.  In Montfort’s Act III aria we see the three ballerinas in the overture who had played Henri’s mother dance round him, with the child in varying stages of development.  In my book, this is called hammering it home.

I could go on.  Herheim seems only perfunctorily interested in direction of characters.  At times, he resorted simply having people sing out directly to the audience.  If you think that Vêpres is an old-fashioned, silly warhorse which needs sending up and lots of movement, you’ll love it.  My problem was (a) I don’t think it necessarily is and that there are things about liberty and relationships that you can bring out and (b) he made it look like a cheap, tawdry, silly evening.  For the record, I didn’t object to the excision of the ballet music. Herheim is obviously the latest European hot property but, having read the critic’s reaction, I couldn’t help thinking of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

So to the cast who went through their routines manfully.  Poplavskaya did not sound fully recovered to me and I hope that illness was the reason for her squally, ill-pitched singing and often ugly noises.  Bryan Hymel had a decent enough stab at Henri’s music but I didn’t feel he had either the confidence or the style for it vocally.  The director and designer clearly intended him to be a weak, unconvincing cipher – or gave him no help to be anything else.

I’m a big admirer of Erwin Schrott but I like a blacker voice for Procida.  I admired his singing, which is accomplished, but I didn’t have much of a clue about what he was doing.  For someone who is one of the most striking and charismatic of modern singers, he seemed pretty subdued.

I admired Michael Volle as Montfort most of all.  Here was a very committed, intelligent performance, whose singing of his Act III aria gave much pleasure and he actually seemed to know what he was doing.

None of the smaller roles made much impression and the chorus was in very poor form.  They sang in pretty much unintelligible French and made that sort of woolly noise that you get when they’re not together and aren’t that sure of themselves.  I’ve don’t think I’ve heard this chorus so disappointing in years.

Antonio Pappano conducted.  I’ve mixed feelings generally about his Verdi (see his last Boccanegra).  It’s also possible that I was so busy watching and hating the production that I didn’t give his conducting much attention.  What I was aware of, however, was how slow and disjointed it felt, how woolly the ensemble was and of occasional and uncharacteristic orchestral fluffs.  This did not feel like a confident performance.

At the end of Act III, there is one of those wonderful Verdi, stand and sing finales – a glorious melody that should carry you away.  I well remember it from the ENO performances where Mark Elder achieved absolutely precise choral singing and a fantastic subito piano – you can hear it also on Kleiber’s 1950 Callas recording.  This performance stayed earthbound and I couldn’t help reflecting on how lucky we were at ENO where a cast of the young Plowright, Kenneth Collins, Neil Howlett and Richard van Allan and Elder’s visceral conducting made you feel that this was an opera worth hearing and engaging with.

So, with this half-baked (or over-cooked?) production, frankly indifferent singing and an off-form Pappano and chorus, there really seemed no reason to stay after Act III.  If it all got better, I apologise.

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