Sicilian Massacre Joins Tori Amos Musical on U.K. Stage

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Bryan Hymel, crouching in center, Lianna Haroutounian, standing in center, and the ensemble of dancers in "Les Vepres Siciliennes" by Verdi at the Royal Opera House. Ballet is incorporated throughout the production. Photographer Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House via Bloomberg

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Bryan Hymel, crouching in center, Lianna Haroutounian, standing in center, and the ensemble of dancers in "Les Vepres Siciliennes" by Verdi at the Royal Opera House. Ballet is incorporated throughout the production. Photographer Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House via Bloomberg Close

Bryan Hymel, crouching in center, Lianna Haroutounian, standing in center, and the ensemble of dancers in "Les Vepres... Read More

Photographer: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House via Bloomberg

Erwin Schrott, from left, Lianna Haroutounian, kneeling on the block, Michael Volle and Bryan Hymel in "Les Vepres Siciliennes" by Verdi. The Act 4 quartet is one of the highlights of the rarely-staged opera. Close

Erwin Schrott, from left, Lianna Haroutounian, kneeling on the block, Michael Volle and Bryan Hymel in "Les Vepres... Read More

Photographer: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House via Bloomberg

Erwin Schrott, left, and ensemble in "Les Vepres Siciliennes." Schrott sings the role of the freedom-fighter Procida, who is here presented as the theater's ballet-master. Close

Erwin Schrott, left, and ensemble in "Les Vepres Siciliennes." Schrott sings the role of the freedom-fighter Procida,... Read More

Photographer: Brinkhoff Mogenburg/National Theater via Bloomberg

Clive Rowe, left, and Rosalie Craig, suspended on right, in "The Light Princess" by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson at the National Theatre. The new musical is based on an 1867 fairy tale by George MacDonald. Close

Clive Rowe, left, and Rosalie Craig, suspended on right, in "The Light Princess" by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson at... Read More

Photographer: Brinkhoff Mogenburg/National Theater via Bloomberg

Nick Hendrix and Rosalie Craig in "The Light Princess" by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson. Director Marianne Elliott and designer Rae Smith find inventive ways to keep the main character off the ground. Close

Nick Hendrix and Rosalie Craig in "The Light Princess" by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson. Director Marianne Elliott and... Read More

Photographer: Brinkhoff Mogenburg/National Theater via Bloomberg

Rosalie Craig in "The Light Princess." There is a spectacular battle sequence in the production. Close

Rosalie Craig in "The Light Princess." There is a spectacular battle sequence in the production.

The crinolines, top hats, and ornate gilded interiors are all there. Verdi’s “Les Vepres Siciliennes” comes to London with the trappings of grand opera.

As the work progresses -- with burly assassins transformed into ballet dancers -- it also takes a hammer to many of the conventions of the genre.

The mammoth 1855 work is about the brutality of French rulers toward oppressed Sicilians in 13th-century Italy. There’s a twist when the rebellious Sicilian hero Henri discovers that his father is the hated French governor.

Director Stefan Herheim updates the action for the Royal Opera and sets it in a lavish 19-century theater, just like the one in Paris for which Verdi wrote the piece. The Sicilians are shown as hard-working singers, dancers and directors. The French are boorish audience members who abuse the ballerinas and treat the performers like dirt.

It’s a sly comment on the limiting restrictions of a genre which requires huge tableaux, balletic divertissements, and sensational plots. The performers are quite literally trapped in a grand opera.

Not all of it works. Some scenes lack focus, or try to cram in too many sub-stories. When it hits the target, which it mostly does, it comes together beautifully.

There’s an emotional punch when the French governor Montfort ( Michael Volle) cries out in despair over the breach between him and his son. There’s another when Henri (Bryan Hymel) has to choose between his duty to his father and his love for Helene (Lianna Haroutounian), who is about to be executed for her freedom-fighting activities.

Balletic Killers

The absurdity of the setting also provides Herheim with chances for fun. The chief rebel Procida (Erwin Schrott) is presented as the theater’s dance master. He makes the assassins stand against the ballet barre and pirouette in formation.

Philipp Furhofer’s spectacular sets include a mirrored wall that transforms into a three-tiered row of plush seating.

Bryan Hymel has a seductive voice with a powerful easy top. After his successes in the Royal Opera’s recent “Robert le Diable” and “Les Troyens,” he deserves his status as Britain’s go-to tenor for grand opera. Michael Volle and Erwin Schrott combine big decibels with wonderful subtlety. If Lianna Haroutounian falls at the final hurdle in the Act 5 aria, she displays an attractive and impressive sound.

With Antonio Pappano’s taut, tense conducting, it’s about as grand as a grand opera can be. Rating: ****½.

‘Light Princess’

There are further visual treats in Tori Amos’s new fairy-tale musical “The Light Princess,” about a girl who laughs so much that she floats, at the National Theatre.

Director Marianne Elliott and designer Rae Smith find ever more inventive means to keep the Princess (Rosalie Craig) off the ground.

She’s hooked onto acrobats, carried in their hands, put on wires, and suspended by every means thinkable. It looks amazing, and helps take your mind off the dull repetitive score and preachy plot. Rating: ***.

“Les Vepres Siciliennes” is in repertoire at the Royal Opera. http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000. It will be screened live to more than 1,000 cinemas across the world on Nov 4. “The Light Princess” is at the National Theatre, London. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         So-so
*          Mediocre
(No stars) Poor

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Elin McCoy on wine and Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com or https://twitter.com/ThompsonWarwick.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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