Verdi had no great love for the French people, but he adored Paris. He complained about their soloists (in his opinion, the worst he had heard in his entire life), about the inferior choruses and at best average orchestras – but despite this, he spent more time in the French capital than in Rome, not only to keep an eye on production of his operas, but also to take advantage of the great city’s charms and abundant theatrical offerings. He grumbled about audience tastes and compared the operations of Parisian opera houses to soulless factories; nonetheless, he dreamed of being able to surpass Meyerbeer himself in the peculiarly French grand opéra genre. He began in the golden age of this ultra-bourgeois variant of the art: with Jérusalem, presented in 1847 in Le Peletier and constituting an adaptation of a dramma lirico from four years earlier entitled I Lombardi alla prima crociata. He made another attempt, after the February Revolution of 1848, when the monarchy under the sceptre of Louis Philippe I was replaced with a republican system. Les vêpres siciliennes, born amid suffering, reached the stage of the Paris Opera only in June 1855, during a transitory crisis in the genre. It attained great, but short-lived success. After a revival in 1863, the opera saw a mere few dozen performances in Paris, after which it disappeared from the repertoire for nearly a century. Furthermore, it returned in a somewhat later ‘export’ version with a libretto poorly translated into Italian, which premièred in December 1855 at the Teatro Regio di Parma (at that time, under the title Giovanna di Guzman). Despite sometimes superb casts and the efforts of the greatest masters of the baton, it did not enter the standard opera repertoire. A revival of the original French version took place only in 2003 at Opéra Bastille.
Since then, the Vêpres have been laboriously paving their way into the hearts of Verdi enthusiasts. Well-received in Geneva, Bilbao and Frankfurt, it met with a cool reaction after the Covent Garden première in 2013 from critics who considered it to be an internally incoherent work, full of long drawn-out bits and none-too-inspired in comparison with the masterpieces from the middle period of the composer’s œuvre. In Poland, the opera has never enjoyed popularity: presented a mere two times – in the 1870s in Warsaw and just before World War II in Poznań – it flitted briefly across the stage of Opera Nova in Bydgoszcz in 2006, in a terrible production by the Státní Opera from Prague, which quickly disappeared from music lovers’ memory. For this reason, it was without hesitation that I took off to Cardiff for the third performance after the première of the most recent staging of David Pountney, who – after productions of La forza del destino and Un ballo in maschera – decided to close off his ‘Verdi trilogy’ with Les vêpres siciliennes.
However, I did not deny myself the pleasure of acquainting myself a day earlier with a revival of Le nozze di Figaro in Tobias Richter’s staging, which had returned to the Welsh National Opera after four years – this time prepared by Max Hoehn, a young British-Swiss stage director, librettist and translator (among other things, he is working on a new translation of Così fan tutte). Judging from the progress of his career thus far, Hoehn really loves opera. Judging from what I saw in Cardiff, he has an exceptional talent for working with singing actors. Richter’s production – with its economical stage design by Ralph Koltai and, for a change of pace, splendid quasi-historical costumes by Sue Blane – hits the bull’s eye in terms of both the tastes of the local audience (which considers Le nozze – in my opinion rightly – to be one of the most wonderful, if not the greatest operatic masterpiece of all time), and the character of the work itself: a proper opera buffa with two distinctly-drawn pairs of protagonists; an array of subplots; the comic figure of the hormonally-challenged Cherubino, who is prepared to fall in love with any woman that crosses his path (OK, except maybe for Marcellina); the obligatory happy ending; and a discreet Enlightenment message about the victory of reason over the arbitrariness of authority. A message – let us add – considerably more discreet than in Beaumarchais’ work, for in Mozart’s time, opera owed its raison d’être above all to the generosity of aristocratic patrons. Hoehn brilliantly refreshed the 2016 staging, focusing all of his attention on precision of acting and clear presentation of the libretto text, from which he drew out often-omitted flavours: to this day, I burst out laughing whenever I recall the facial expression of Antonio (Laurence Cole) at the words ‘ché il cavallo io non vidi saltare di là’.
Le nozze di Figaro. Soraya Mafi (Susanna) and David Ireland (Figaro). Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Most of the cast carried out the tasks entrusted to them faultlessly, though in purely vocal terms, the one who ‘stole’ the evening from her colleagues was Soraya Mafi, a Susanna with a voice radiant as the sun, softness in the upper register and impeccable intonation. David Ireland, debuting as Figaro, gradually gained in power of conviction: his resonant and comely, but still stiffly-handled bass-baritone did not permit him to convey all the nuances of this role. Despite this, compared to them, Count and Countess Almaviva came out decidedly worse: Anita Watson, endowed with a soprano of pretty, silky timbre, had considerable difficulty with phrasing and accentuation of syllables in the recitatives; in the otherwise beautiful singing of Jonathan McGovern, there was a lack of self-confidence and perfidy-laced authority. Similar problems were encountered by Anna Harvey, who – despite possessing a sensual, distinctive mezzo-soprano simply ideal for a pants role – was unconvincing as a teenager high on testosterone. The remaining soloists displayed a superb feel for their characters and an exceptional vis comica: chief among them Harriet Eyley, a Barbarina with a voice like crystal; as well as Leah Marian Jones and Henry Waddington – a pair of experienced artists who were able to not only play Marcellina and Bartolo, but also sing them properly. A big round of applause for the choristers of the WNO – all of them together and each one individually – as well as for the dependable orchestra, which obediently realized the conductor’s concept. There is no way to deny the lightness and charm of Carlo Rizzi’s interpretation; the tempi, however, were excessively brisk, sometimes at the expense of precision in articulation, especially in the strings.
The performance of Les vêpres siciliennes the day after, under the same baton, will no doubt go down in WNO history. At the beginning, it didn’t occur to me why the audience – in this country, generally well-disciplined – did not finish up their conversations after the lights went out, and continued to check the screens of their smartphones. The first phone rang during the overture. Rizzi interrupted and shouted angrily over his shoulder, ‘Telefono!’ The next one coincided with the beginning of Vaudemont’s recitative. Before we found out ‘quelle est cette beauté’, the conductor again halted the musicians and kindly, though firmly explained to the audience why one should turn off electronic devices before the performance begins. He received a hurricane of applause. Even though a fierce match was playing out between Wales and France at the Six Nations Cup in the nearby Millennium Stadium, from this moment onward nothing interrupted the progress of the performance. No one disappeared at intermission either.
Les vêpres siciliennes. Anush Hovhannisyan (Hélène). Photo: Johan Person
The credit for this goes, among other things, to David Pountney’s coherent concept – even if regular attenders bridled at the director’s yet again shamelessly recycling his own earlier ideas, this time from the two previous parts of the ‘trilogy’. I had not seen either of them live, so I did not feel wearied by the re-utilization of elements from Raimund Bauer’s minimalist stage design – mobile black frames, alternatingly organizing the space and giving it the status of a metaphor. Pountney rightly discerned that Scribe and Duveyrier’s dramaturgically lame text does not so much tell the story of the protagonists, as evoke the ideas that occupied Verdi’s mind throughout his artistic career: the complex relations between father and son, the loneliness of the high and mighty of this world, the impossibility of reconciling human dreams of happiness with duty toward one’s people and one’s native land.
The simple scenery and props – superbly lit by Fabrice Kebour – are of strongly symbolic character, and effectively stimulate the viewer’s imagination. The costumes drawn from various eras reflect the figurative nature of the libretto: an adaptation of Le duc d’Albe, in the case of the French version transporting the action from the original 16th-century Flanders back to the 13th century; in the later Italian version, again transporting the original action to another reality – this time, that of 17th-century Portugal under Spanish rule. In Pountney’s take, the French occupation forces look down upon the oppressed Sicilians from the heights of ladders that move about the stage. Hélène – dressed in a black gown – rides onstage in a frame, like a portrait of a widow from the insurrection. Procida, returning from exile, clambers onto the shore from a non-existent boat, laboriously passing through the next of the three mobile frames. The ballet from Act III, originally intended as an allegory of the four seasons, turns into a drastic tale about the fortunes of Henri – starting with the seduction of his mother by Montfort – conveyed in the expressive language of modern dance mixed with pantomime (spectacular choreography by Caroline Finn). This theatre-within-a-theatre is observed by viewers hidden behind the silhouettes of characters from the Sicilian Opera dei Pupi. In Act IV, the wired walls of the prison slide together from both sides, almost crushing the conspirators held within. Confusion ensues only in the finale, which is even less clear than in the opera libretto – this is probably the only unsuccessful element of Pountney’s concept. In this case, I agree with the critics that a stage director of this standing should not lack for ideas to sum up the narrative.
Giorgio Caoduro (Guy de Montfort) with Marine Tournet (dancer). Photo: Johan Person
That evening, Carlo Rizzi found himself in his element. He skillfully highlighted the greatest strengths of this score – the bizarrely orchestrated collection of themes and motifs from the work in the terrifying overture, the spatial effects in the truly Meyerbeerian choruses, the clear diversification of compositional language in the emotion-laden arias, the intimate duets and the overwhelmingly enormous sound of the ensemble scenes. He also brought out the musical best in the scenes that were ‘miscarried’ in dramaturgical terms: chief among them the brilliant quartet from Act I, full of unearthly harmonies. With the soloists, the results were varying. Just as Susanna took over the foreground in Le nozze di Figaro, so the rest of the cast in the Vêpres was dominated by Giorgio Caoduro (Guy de Montfort), an Italian baritone endowed with a bright, passionate voice and, at the same time, superb in terms of character, the type of singer who rivets the audience’s attention from his first entrance onstage. In terms of acting, he was fully equaled by Anush Hovhannisyan (Hélène), whose very expressive soprano was – unfortunately – not yet mature enough for this role, and therefore marred by insecure intonation and a dull sound in the low register. Her partner Jung Soo Yun did what he could in the thankless role of Henri: technically, he was exemplary; however, he aroused mixed feelings, for nature has punished him with a tenor of extraordinarily unpleasant, indeed repulsive timbre. If someone were to attempt a studio recording of Les vêpres, the velvet-voiced Wojtek Gierlach would be the Procida of one’s dreams; onstage, however, he was lacking in the charisma that is an inseparable part of this fanatic patriot’s character. Among the supporting roles, particularly noteworthy were Christine Byrne (Ninette) and Robyn Lyn Evans (Danieli) – for instance, even just for their contribution to the tremendous quartet ‘Quel horreur m’environne’.
In the aforementioned rugby match, the French beat the Welsh by four points. I don’t know if it will comfort Cardiff sports fans, but at the same time, the Welsh National Opera ensemble effectively routed opponents of Verdi’s forgotten work.