Although completed soon after such hits as ‘Il trovatore’, ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘La traviata’, ‘Les Vêpres siciliennes’ is a far rarer beast in Verdi’s catalogue. It was his first opera for the Parisian stage and was later made into an Italian version (‘I vespri Siciliani’). It’s an epic too: five acts and three hours of music account for the earlier (6pm) start-time at Royal Opera for all eight performances of this new production. And we don’t get it all, for most of the ballet music – the 30-minute ‘The Four Seasons’ – is omitted, although there is still a dance element given that the Overture and some scenes are choreographed, very attractively if arguably incongruously. Some of Stefan Herheim’s direction is somewhat ribald, playing up the melodrama of the piece with exaggerated gestures.
The story is a simple one: the French have invaded Sicily, which, naturally enough, finds resistance. There is, of course, a love story: locals Hélène and Henri, the former armed with the skull of her dead brother and the latter the son of the hated Governor who raped Henri’s mother years earlier (graphically detailed during the Overture). So not only is Sicily occupied but one of its leading lights has reluctant allegiances to his French father and is branded a traitor. Then there’s Jean Procida, a zealot of a patriot, keen to massacre the invaders, although his gammy leg doesn’t convince.
The plot is thin, the opera long, and some of it hangs fire or, in the final act, finds changes of heart and circumstance happening all too easily. Act III is the highlight, a dramatic exchange between father and son. Sets, costumes and lighting are excellent, whether depicting a replica of the theatre that the opera was premiered in or a misty and gloomy dungeon, with a cherub as executioner.
A stellar cast – led by Michael Volle (the baddie), Bryan Hymel, Erwin Schrott and Lianna Haroutounian – offer a feast of singing and high-note challenges. With Antonio Pappano conducting the music could not be in better hands. Though offering much that moves and stirs, this is not vintage Verdi. But it’s an appealing curiosity that is well worth catching and the composer’s bicentenary is a good excuse to dust it off. Colin Anderson