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