Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes comes under the “grand opera” genre. Popular in mid nineteenth-century Paris, these operas have five acts and, traditionally, must contain a ballet sequence. Consequently, these shows are long and difficult to produce. Verdi, aware of these problems, rewrote Les Vêpres Siciliennes a few years later in a shorter form. It’s admirable, then, that Welsh National Opera took up the arduous task of putting on the original “grand” version for its touring Verdi Trilogy. And they haven’t done it since 1954, so it’s essentially uncharted territory for them.
Directing this ambitious project is Olivier Award-winner David Pountney, whose production of The Cunning Little Vixen came to Venue Cymru last year. Along with set designer Raimund Bauer, he has created a modern visual aesthetic to guide us through this tale of love and revolution.
Speaking of which, the plot is straight forward for such a long piece. It is 1282, and Sicily is occupied by French forces, with the evil governor Guy de Montfort at the helm. Hélène, an Austrian princess held hostage by the French, along with an exiled soldier called Procida, wants to rile up a revolution. Henri, a young man hopelessly in love with Hélène, joins their cause. The twist – Henri is Montfort’s son, and despite Montfort’s abuse of his mother, Henri suddenly feels an obligation to protect his father from the revolution. As with most operas of this ilk, it all ends in tears and bloodshed.
Before the melodramatic story begins, the orchestra plays the overture – the militaristic feel of which does a good job of getting us in the mood for battle and revolution. The curtain rises to reveal a scene that brings Les Misérables’ opener “Look Down” to mind – the Sicilians sit on the floor in lines, scrubbing to the beat of the music, while the French sit jovially above them on horseback. I say horseback, but the stage prop is a tall step ladder like the lifeguards sit on at public swimming pools. This is used throughout the show, in a genius move by Bauer, to depict people in power – Montfort often sits on one, for example. Particularly clever is the fact that two executioners sit on them in an eerie sequence towards the end. Poor or rich, nobody can escape the power of an executioner with an axe.
However, the expressionistic set gets weary after a few hours. The set is made up of three large frames, which are pushed around by the cast and chorus at scene changes. Running along the bottom of one frame is a long fluorescent tube, which spends half the time cleverly creating silhouettes and shadows, and the other half glaring into our eyes. A bit more thought could have gone into this. It works perfectly in a prison scene, as the shadows of the bars fall dramatically across the stage during a duet. But there are times when it is unnecessary, and only the stage lights are needed.
The light changes, however, during the ballet scenes. A murky green fills the stage as we witness a flashback, and the dancers tell us the grim story of Montfort and Henri’s mother. These ballet sequences bring variety to the show, and prove that the decision to do the longer version is worthwhile. Choreographed perfectly by Caroline Finn, these sequences show us how well a collaboration between Welsh National Opera and National Dance Company Wales can go. We can only hope they join forces again some time soon.
Despite the impeccable dancing, the music steals the show. The singers and orchestra bring Verdi’s score to life with such energy that it’s occasionally overwhelming. Jung Soo Yun, Anush Hovhannisyan and Wojtek Gierlach play the three young revolutionaries with zest, and Gareth Brynmor – replacing Georgio Caoduro – plays a sinister Montfort. Tying it all together is Carlo Rizzi and his faultless orchestra. “Bravi!” the audience exclaim.