VERDI Sicillian Vespers
Setting a grand opera on a grand opera-house stage costumed at the time of its premiere has been done before – but has rarely felt so apt as here. Then comes the novel icing on Stefan Herheim’s cake: actually using ‘les girls’ from the obligatory grand-opera ballet throughout the show, representing (as I read it) the people of Sicily being plundered by the French invaders. It’s both effective and – in Procida’s Act 2 scene 1 vengeance aria – breathtakingly beautiful, like some impossible rediscovered 1850s video promo.
Given those parameters – which I guess would only offend seekers after recreated Sicilian medievalism – Herheim and his cast play things pretty straight in terms of telling the complicated (but so gripping) story. Also in the style of the period he allows his singers to act intentionally big. There’s plenty of the arms up, clutching pounding hearts and looking up to Heaven that you’re not allowed to do any more in drama class. That too works a treat here, especially from Volle and Schrott, where you can see the demarcation lines.
Musically we’re on an almost permanent cloud nine. Pappano gets huge power and tension from the ensemble, and paces the long evening to perfection. Collectors may remember darker colours and more neurosis in Callas’s old Italian performance than Haroutounian provides but, that apart, this is a pretty ideal line-up (and she gives a spirited reading of the huge role of Hélène). Volle and Hymel take us on an emotional rollercoaster through the Montfort/Henri encounter in Act 3 – one of the great (and still rather unknown) father/child discovery scenes in Verdi. Schrott’s charisma makes him a natural leader of the belated Sicilian resistance – he is, of course, first seen as the ballet master, which sets up an interesting appearance in the final scene as the instigator of the actual Vespers massacre. Right through the cast list – including Daniéli and Ninetta, a kind of weathercock of Sicilian/French fortunes – and the increasingly versatile chorus, there’s the highest level of commitment.
Sound and balance are good, and the filming has a real sense of the style of the show. An only grouse is Warner’s booklet: lesser-known works need a track and who’s-in-what-scene listing for reference without constant change of screen image. But…hugely recommended.