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Les vêpres siciliennes, Royal Opera House, London, review: A beautiful and brilliant staging – The Independent

Amid the endless Aidas and Traviatas, it’s refreshing to come upon a Verdi opera which is almost unknown, as is the case with Les v?pres siciliennes. In Paris, where it premiered in 1855, this ambitions opera enjoyed a brief vogue before disappearing from the repertory; it was never staged in Britain until Covent Garden invited the Norwegian director Stefan Herheim to do so in 2013. Its historical basis in 13th century French-occupied Sicily was creatively doctored by its librettist Eugene Scribe to tread a careful path round Franco-Italian sensibilities, but the real attraction for its original audience lay in the staging, which Verdi had demanded should match his ‘grandiose, impassioned’ subject.

And in Herheim’s production staging is again the key, in that he and his designer Philip F?rhofer have set it in a stylised version of the opera house for which it was written. Moreover, while Scribe’s plot turns on the hostility between the victorious French and the vanquished Sicilians, Herheim has translated its political struggle into one in which art itself is the territory over which battle is raging. The oppressed Sicilians occupy the stage-within-a-stage, while their French oppressors occupy the balconies and boxes.

While the overture plays we get a mimed sequence culminating in some quintessentially Weinsteinian sexual predation by the French Governor de Montfort (Michael Volle) with the girls of the Sicilian corps de ballet. The action is driven by the moral dilemma of the Sicilian hero Henri, whose devotion to his beloved Helene (Malin Bystr?m) – and to the insurgent cause – is undercut by his horrified discovery that he is the illegitimate son of de Montfort; De Montfort’s anguished campaign to win his son’s love with political concessions becomes the opposite polarity of the story. Although the score has pre-echoes of Aida, La traviata, and Don Carlos, and although every bar of this long opera is dramatic, there are no hints of those operas’ moments of musical transcendence: the cast and chorus – and Maurizio Benini in the pit – have to work hard.

If Erwin Schrott (as the patriot Procida) mangles his French, and if Bystr?m lacks the technical ease required for her coloratura arias, tenor Bryan Hymel’s Henri is gorgeously sung, and Volle’s incarnation of the emotionally-tormented dictator is a tour de force.

But what carries the evening is the consistent beauty and brilliance of the staging.

Herheim’s theatrical surprises come thick and fast, with the groups of singers and dances adroitly marshalled, and the stage-within-a-stage in constant motion; the masterly way in which Verdi’s music ratchets up the suspense is echoed by the illusion which Herheim creates, turning the whole world blood-red before it chillingly regains its ordinary colours as the climactic massacre takes place.

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