Opera: Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto: Eugène Scribe with Charles Duveyrier
Director: David Pountney
A palpable feeling of excitement, mixed with a slight apprehension engendered by fear of the unknown, was a key element of the opening night of Verdi’s seldom performed, three-and-a-half-hour-long opera Les Vȇpres Siciliennes, based on true events which happened in Sicily back in 1282. From the opening dramatic bars and lyricism of the overture, we knew we were on to a winner. One can see why the choice of a little-known opera was chosen to round of WNO’S Verdi trilogy.
Director David Poultney, never afraid to take risks, pulls out all the stops this time. If, at times, the result is something of a fruit salad– who cares? (Although why Balinese/Thai type costumes make their appearance in the latter part of the second half does, I confess, beat me). With its breath-taking arias, plethora of great duets and wonderful choruses perfect for the justly famed chorus of the WNO, Vȇpres is an excellent choice for this company, the expense of staging such a marathon made possible for it being a co-production with Theater Bonn.
Centred around the (hapless, as it always is in opera) pivotal love story of the two protagonists Hélène sung by Anush Hovhannisyan and Henri (South Korean Jung Soo Yun), and with emotional, psychological and political elements, Vȇpres is at heart the story of a country where an impoverished population struggles against a series of oppressors. An operatic work not to be undertaken lightly; the major performers must meet the challenge of complex duets and soaring arias. Hovhannisyan sings with simpatico throughout, memorably so in the Bolero (Merci, jeunes amis). Her duets with Soo Yun are of a high standard, although the latter must take care that his voice does not lose power at times.
Giorgio Caoduro portrays Guy de Monfort, the bad guy (excuse the pun) of the piece, as an ageing and greying figure, albeit a manipulative schemer – a low key but clever interpretation which brings out the nuances of a situation which can have no happy outcome. Polish singer Wojtek Gierlach, who some opera-goers may remember in WNO’s production of Cenerentola, is a bullish Jean Procida, in a suit reminiscent of an Italian Mafioso. The ballet scene, considered an essential ingredient when the opera was first performed, is shortened from its original half-hour but kept in sequences that are a weird and wonderful mix of the classic and modern, skilfully danced by members of the National Dance Company Wales.
With new productions of Vȇpres being a rarity, the creative team have virtually a free hand. While artistically, from the music under the skilled baton of Carlo Rizzi to the performance of the soloists, the score is high, there is one important caveat.
Possibly in an effort to keep down an undoubtedly high budget, the scenery is restricted to sliders framing the action; only in the final scenes is any concession made to this. Coupled with large pairs of steps (from which two of the cast, perched uncomfortably, speak their lines) irritatingly manoeuvred around by stage hands, this results in a missed opportunity to indicate scenically the emotionally heat-inflaming colour of Sicily – an important and contributary factor in the history of a country frequently subjected in past decades to aggression from overseas.
Runs until Saturday 15 February 2020, then touring | Image: Johan Persson