Carlo Rizzi’s conducting and WNO’s chorus make Les vêpres siciliennes a worthwhile experience

13/03/2020

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Les vêpres siciliennes: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Carlo Rizzi (conductor). Theatre Cymru, Llandudno, 7.3.2020. (RJF)

WNO’s Les vêpres siciliennes (c) Johan Persson

Production:

Director – Sir David Pountney
Set designer – Raimund Bauer
Costume designer – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting designer – Fabrice Kebour
Choreographer – Caroline Flinn  

Cast:

La Duchesse Hélène — Anush Hovhannisyan
Henri — Jung Soo Yun
Guy de Montfort — Gareth Brynmor John
Jean Procida — Wojtek Gierlach
Le Sire de Béthune — Wyn Pencarrig
Ninette — Christine Byrne
Daniéli /Mainfroid — Robyn Lyn Eva
Thibault — Alexander Sprague
Robert — Owen Webb
Le Comte de Vaudemont — Alastair Moore
Dancers – Hellen Boyko, Luke Divall, Javier Ojeda Hernândez, Queenie Maidment-Otlet, Marine Tournet, Philip King, Hanna Lyn Hughes

This rarely performed Verdi opera concludes the trio of the great Italian composer’s sequential middle period works presented by Sir David Pountney as he leaves his responsibilities at Welsh National Opera: Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. This staging is the final work of the trilogy, which previously included La forza del destino in 2018 (review click here) and Un ballo in maschera in 2019 (review click here).

After the La traviata premiere and back home in his property in Busseto, Verdi commenced in an extended correspondence with Antonio Somma, an Italian lawyer and playwright, about an opera based on King Lear. Somma had never written a libretto and Verdi commissioned him to do so, much as he had done with Cammarano three years earlier. Again the project came to nothing as Verdi turned his mind towards his contract with the Paris Opéra for a five act grand opera including a ballet. The 1830s and 1840s were the golden age at the Opéra under the management of Veron. The musical pillars of the Paris establishment were Auber, Meyerbeer and Halévy who developed opera with greater complexity and on a scale than had not been seen before. Sooner or later every aspiring Italian composer of worth wanted to make his debut there as both the musical standard and fees were far superior than in Italy and elsewhere. Verdi’s first invitation had come in 1845, shortly after the production of Giovanna d’Arco when he was fully committed in Italy; he held out for two years before accepting a definite engagement. Finally, he signed a contract to provide an opera for the autumn of 1847 following the example of Rossini and Donizetti in modifying an earlier work, grafting onto it a new plot, composing new numbers where necessary, and adding the de rigueur ballet. His Jérusalem, a revision of I Lombardi, his fourth opera, was sufficiently successful to keep the theatre management interested in the composer. Jérusalem was to have been followed by a completely new work by Verdi. However, the dramatic political upheavals in France, leading to the Second Empire in 1848 made that impossible, and Verdi did not return to Paris until 1852 when, during the gestation of Il trovatore, he returned to negotiate a new contract. The Opéra were desperate for a new grand opera to be premiered in 1855 during that year’s Paris Exhibition. Fully aware of his own value in the international market, Verdi drove a hard bargain. The full resources of the theatre were to be put at his disposal and no other new opera was to be performed there that year. Further, Verdi would choose all the cast himself and there would be forty performances guaranteed. The composer was also to enjoy the services of Eugène Scribe as librettist. Scribe had been librettist for Halévy and Meyerbeer for their ‘Grand Operas’ written for the Paris theatre.

When Verdi and Strepponi travelled to Paris in October 1853, the scheduled date for the new opera was more than a year and a half away, but there had been no agreement with Scribe as to the subject until they settled on Les vêpres siciliennes which was to be Verdi’s twentieth title. Scribe persistently failed to provide the composer with a dramatically taut final act and perhaps hindered his compositional fluency. Verdi demanded release from the contract, as its terms as originally stipulated by him had not been met. Eventually matters were resolved and the composer and poet reconciled their differences with the plot being set in Palermo, Sicily, in 1292 at the time of the French occupation. The five act opera, complete with ballet, was premiered on 13 June 1855 and was well received. It gained the approbation and admiration of fellow composers Adolphe Adam and Hector Berlioz; the latter’s opinion carrying particular weight in France. Although Les vêpres siciliennes received more performances in the season than the contracted number, Verdi’s first ‘Grand Opera’ had a chequered fate and was not destined to enter the charmed circle of Paris repertory Grand Operas such as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots or Halévy’s La Juive. Although there was a revival in Paris in 1863, for which Verdi wrote several new arias, it was not heard in France in its original language after 1865.

Les vêpres siciliennes may lack the dramatic tautness and rich melodic invention of its immediate middle period predecessors, Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata, and it is possible that Verdi could not sustain his optimum level of creativity over five acts. Equally, the battles he had to fight with the bureaucracy within the Opéra, which was noted by Berlioz, together with the lack of professionalism of Scribe, who could not even be bothered to attend rehearsals to make adjustments when required, could not have helped. But the best music within the opera is that from the pen of the mature Verdi. Several solo arias have his distinctive stamp, whilst the confrontations between Governor Montfort and the rebel Henri, who turns out to be his son, are of the highest quality. Whilst Verdi is renowned for his operas examining the father-daughter relationship, Les vêpres siciliennes is one of the few in which the composer focuses on that between father and son. Different facets of this relationship are to be found in his sixth opera, I due Foscari (1844), his eleventh, I masnadieri (1847) and fifteenth Luisa Miller (1849). Montfort is, however, the very first of Verdi’s lonely figures of authority that have to weigh their love of wife, granddaughter or son alongside their duties to the state. Successors are Simon Boccanegra (1857) and King Philip in Verdi’s other, and certainly greater, Grand Opera for Paris, Don Carlos (1864).

This staging seemed to involve more movement of stage furniture – in the form of large frames edged with neon lights – than any effort to convey meaningful space for dramatic or personal interaction. Utilising these frames enabled a revised usage of sets from the previous two of the trio of a trilogy of Verdi works presented by David Pountney and referred to above. They, like much of the costumes of the principals had little relevance to the period of the opera or the story. However, colour and costumes are very evident in scenes involving the period dress of the occupying soldiers, giving a vivid and contrasting scenario when they appeared. Elsewhere the principals of the story are uniformly in black including that of Anush Hovhannisyan in mourning for her murdered brother. The complex story – spread over five acts and including an extensive 35-minute ballet – was reduced in this performance so as to make the evening more manageable. (In Covent Garden’s most recent production of the opera, they spread the ballet in excerpts over several acts and scenes.) In the associated programme for this staging, which was presented in only two acts, the programme notes were extremely brief and gave no insight to the evolving story for the watching ingénue of the work.

The soloists were somewhat variable; one of the strongest and most convincingly sung and acted realisations being a substitute for an indisposed singer. This was Gareth Brynmor John singing the prima role of Guy de Montfort instead of the lesser role of Robert. He sang with strong well-accented tone and acted so as to bring the role alive. His committed, sincerely sung, portrayal and fine acting was yet again an example of the stage preparation WNO’s singers get before the show goes on the road. His portrayal had great promise for his future. To my hearing he was the best of the major soloists. Of these Wojtek Gierlach as Procida was rather gruff of tone and unconvincing as an actor. Whilst Jung Soo Yun’s tenor could hit the high notes his French was not graceful or well accented. As La Duchesse Hélène, Anush Hovhannisyan showed some strength of voice, but not much in the matter of gracefully caressing a note.

Many present will know from recordings of this work that casting this opera is not easy and I must forgive WNO some failings. None are necessary, however, for their chorus contribution, nor that of the orchestra under Maestro Carlo Rizzi whose feel for Verdi’s music I have never failed to appreciate since his conducting of the original French version of Don Carlos, which the company gave in the 2005 season and which I was privileged to see and hear in Llandudno. The orchestra, chorus and to a lesser extent dancers, made the experience of seeing a live opera performance, as distinct from a filmed one, something I will cherish even though its modernistic approach was a distinct failure and the solo singing less than perfect.

Robert J Farr

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