Long overdue Verdi "Vespers" makes powerful Royal Opera debut

Sun Oct 20, 2013 3:35pm EDT
 
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - It took 158 years to get here, but "Les Vepres Siciliennes" (The Sicilian Vespers), one of the grandest of Verdi's operas, made its Royal Opera debut in London this week in a production that proved an ideal platform for soloists, ballerinas and choruses.

"Les Vepres", a sprawling, 4-1/2-hour-long affair that requires a corps de ballet and two choruses on top of the usual soloists and a big pit orchestra, has been called "the missing link" among Verdi operas.

Coming after his earlier successes with "Rigoletto", "La Traviata" and "Il Trovatore", it points the way to later masterpieces like "Aida", "Otello" and "Falstaff", but has been only sporadically performed since its Paris premiere in 1855.

That changed during this 200th-year celebration of Verdi's birth, with new productions mounted in Frankfurt and at the Caramoor festival in suburban New York. The much-anticipated first staging at Covent Garden, which had its premiere on Thursday, only compounded the mystery of why it had taken so long.

Norwegian stage director Stefan Herheim, who has mounted innovative productions of Wagner's operas at Bayreuth and elsewhere, updated the action from the French occupation of Sicily in the 13th century, and a Sicilian revolt that massacred 3,000 French in 1282, to an opera house in 19th-century Paris.

The retooling allowed Herheim to play on the lore of Parisian grand opera, namely that young swells would arrive fashionably late so they could watch the ballerinas at the beginning of the second act and choose the one they would take home for the night. In Herheim's version, the invitation to the ballerina comes at the point of a French soldier's bayonet.

OPERA AT FULL BLAST

More importantly for this production, the setting of an opera house within an opera house allowed Herheim and the Royal Opera's music director Antonio Pappano to pack the largest possible chorus on to the Covent Garden stage.   Continued...