When Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi decided to prove himself on the Paris Opera stage and outshine his eternal rival Giacomo Meyerbeer, he looked for a grandiose, imposing work that would wow the French audience. So it may seem passing strange that he eventually chose the Sicilian Vespers, a blood-soaked episode of Italian history in which the island of Sicily revolted against French rule.
But in Verdi’s opera, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, written by French author Eugène Scribe, good and evil are not easily split across national lines. There is some good and bad both in the French oppressor, Montfort, and in the Italian rebel, Jean Procida, both of whom try and manipulate star-crossed lovers Henri (a Sicilian patriot who turns out to be Montfort’s son) and Hélène, a Sicilian noblewoman whose brother Montfort had executed.
The dramatic music, alongside the depth of the story, conspires to make this one of Verdi’s most intriguing operas – and one of the hardest to sing. Eventually, Verdi – whose name later became a synonym for the Italian independence movement – remained best known for his Italian operas, and the French-sung Vêpres was relatively forgotten. Now, however, a groundbreaking production at the Royal Opera House looks set to bring it back to the forefront of great opera.
This is the first time the Vêpres come to Covent Garden and Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s take does justice to the momentous occasion. He stages the opera, originally set in medieval Sicily, in mid 19th century Paris – the place and time when Verdi first performed it.The staging even features a jaw-dropping reconstruction of the Parisian opera house. At the heart of the lavish, four-hour production will be the Act III ballet ‘Les Quatres Saisons’, the Act IV duet between Hélène and Henri, and Hélène’s magnificent bolero in Act V.
The Vêpres, which stars American tenor Bryan Hymel and Russian soprano Lianna Haroutounian conducted by Royal Opera House music director Sir Antonio Pappano, will open on October 17 at the Royal Opera House.
Images: Champagne Bar by Lia Vittone, Auditorium by Will Pearson, both courtesy of the Royal Opera House