For Herheim, the battle for self-determination is taking place not in a Medieval Sicily colonised by the French but within the gilded cage of the Paris Opéra in 1850. We are witnessing a sinister fight for power over art, with the ultra feminized ballerinas the victims of their controlling, abusive admirers. Written into Verdi’s score, too, is a struggle between French and Italian opera, with the latter’s dynamic cabalettas, resounding choruses and psychologically sophisticated soliloquies winning hands down over bloated length or empty spectacle. Ditching the full-length ballet, choreographer André de Jong used the rich resource of 12 ballerinas throughout the opera; their acting of the opera’s central plot during the Overture was inspired, and their interactions with singers further animated Herheim’s lively direction and Philipp Fürhofer’s opulent, mirrored staging.
Les Vêpres needs three formidable male voices, which is what this cast delivered: Michale Volle drew perhaps the loudest cheer for his penetrating, complex Montfort, the despotic French governor whose world unravels when he discovers his enemy is his bastard son, Henri, sung with ringing sincerity by Brian Hymel. In their key Act 3 scene, during which the truth if revealed, Verdi examines every aspect of the raw distress born of a corrupted paternal relationship with staggering insight. Torn between his past and future, Henri is a man on the wrack. It hurts. Erwin Schrott makes an ideal patriot Procida: his smouldering vengeance turns sinister, then explosive as the opera progressed; his inky bass effortlessly fills the auditorium.
Casting mishaps were turned on their head on Monday night: Marina Poplavskaya, who had withdrawn from the opening performances due to illness, replaced Lianna Haroutounian, now indisposed with laryngitis after one night. While the part of Hélène suits Poplavskaya’s imperious intensity, she sounded distinctly uneven (particularly in her Act 1 exhortation) and struggled to keep pace and to hit the heights. Only, in the final, charming Boléro did we hear the glorious, covered quality of which she’s capable.
Aronofsky’s film Black Swan seemed to have been one inspiration for the production, which sometimes veered towards gothic shlock: masks were skulls at the ball, French soldiers donned the tulle skirts of raped ballerinas, Schrott appeared in the final act dressed as Odile, a bad fairy at the feast who slays the assembled revellers with his bayoneted French flag before setting light to it. After the intense confrontations in Acts 3 and 4, there seems to be no music left for the final uprising. Instead, Herheim turned the lights on his audience, challenging our complicity.
Runs until 11 November. This production will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 18 November at 6.15pm