Les vêpres siciliennes

Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Eugene Scribe
Welsh National Opera and Theater Bonn
Donald Gordon Theatre, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
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“Enough to stun a bull.” That was Verdi’s verdict on the prospect of writing this five-acter for Paris in the French grand opera style. Potential audiences now might also be deterred by the prospect of three-and-a-half hours in the theatre and an abstract set dominated by three massive rectangles.

They should not be. With typical insightfulness, great choruses and two outstanding principals, director David Pountney brings his trilogy of late transitional Verdi to a triumphant conclusion.

The piece’s libretto—a cut-and-paste job from a previous, unrelated plot dashed off by the prolific and appropriately named Eugene Scribe—is loosely based on the massacre of the French occupiers of Salerno in 1282, spiced with the usual battle of political and filial loyalties.

By the standards of Verdi, who had just written La Traviata, it’s an uneven work with a slow beginning and a botched, ridiculously short ending. But between the two are some of the composer’s richest duets, fiery choruses and fine melodic invention.

The part of Henri, illegitimate son of the tyrannical Guy de Montfort, could have been written for tenor Jung Soo Yun. Yun is blessed with a broad lower register, a sweetness at the top and a dramatic sound to stir those Sicilian rebels. It’s a taxing role, involving every one of the five duets, and Yun maintains the intensity pretty well to the end.

The excellent American soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams was the lead earlier in the cycle, and WNO has discovered a wow-quality successor in the Armenian Anush Hovhannisyan as Helene. ‘Discovered’ is possibly the wrong term, for Ms Hovhannisyan made the 2017 finals of the Cardiff Singer of the World down the road.

But this is her biggest role to date. The voice is full of colour, the technique brilliant and she looks striking. From the opening notes of her first aria with its robust incitement to rebellion, there is that dignity and authority called stage presence.

Wojtek Gierlach as the rebellion instigator Procida and Giorgio Caoduro as Montfort add just the right degree of darkness to Henri and Helene’s light.

Pountney has transposed the opera to the time of its writing, the Second Empire, the French splendid in their military and judicial finery, the coarse-clothed peasants literally on their knees in the opening scene.

Those rectangular panels offer different perspectives through which to judge these conflicted characters, and there is a telling moment when de Montfort is at his most paternally tender as a flayed, twitching, half-naked woman is trundled across the back of the stage.

The extended ballet—a requirement of the Paris Opera—is here integrated into the story as a masque, enacting Montfort’s rape of Henri’s mother, complete with birth scream, as a stony-face chorus looks on from behind strangely disquieting Sicilian religious icons, and there are little reminders from earlier in the trilogy with a wicked fairy from La forza del destino and a coffin joke from Un ballo del destino.

In this final co-production with Theatre Bonn, Pountney has moved some way from the monstrous choruses and immense spectacle associated with grand opera toward a more symbolic realism. It may not be so grand, but this final instalment of the Verdi trilogy does not lack grandeur.

Reviewer: Colin Davison