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Welsh National Opera – Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers)
Wales Millennium Centre
Saturday 8th February 2020

It was as far back as 1954 that WNO first took on this hefty, operatic work. Yet, only in 2020 have they decided to do it again, this new production being the third and final work of the Verdi trilogy (the two others being La forza del destino and Un ball in maschera). Director David Pountney, with Carlo Rizzi joined forces once again, along with an appearance from the Italian Ambassador to the UK, remained the three largest figures within this trilogy, celebrating and cherishing Verdi. Those that were missing were Prince Charles (who popped over to see the past two opening nights) and WNO favourites Mary Elizabeth Williams and Gwyn Hughes Jones in the leading roles.

How could Verdi possibly decline an invitation to write a piece for the renowned Paris Opera? With this came strict demands to write in their own grandiose form (five acts, with a ballet in the middle of the third act etc). The young Italian composer might have been overreaching, as his relationship with the librettist Auguste Eugène Scribe remained frosty (an old libretto from a Donizetti opera was recycled for this). An agreement came about to set the story in the 13th century, in the French colony of Sicily. Paris opera-goers appeared to have no qualms about depictions of the French killing and colonising the Sicilians on stage, but were they sure did double down about the structure of their grand opera.

This is middle period, overblown Verdi and you can feel these effects. Though sung in French the impact of the composer’s Italian aesthetic still shines through. Berlioz gushed about the score saying about “the hot colour that shines throughout”, though there are really no stand out arias, none which are as revered to the extent of his other work. One of Verdi’s great masterstrokes was his trios and quartets for singers, for heightened moments of drama. Only a select few of these featured here and felt like a letdown. Also, noteworthy is the extensive ballet sequence, though this production has cut it in half, here telling how Henri came to be (some version don’t have it at all). Some of the finest music lies within the ballet (with jittery/provocative choreography from Caroline Finn, with energised dancers) and also the frilly and tense overture.

Pountney has proven within these three productions his love of the eerie and the macabre (in fact most of his WNO material has featured skulls and skeletons). He wants to showcase broad brushstrokes concerning the setting of each of his adaptions, with costumes spanning various centuries: 13th century garb, enlightenment gowns and even pinstriped suits.

Jarring stuff, indeed.

The set is dark, as megalithic frames tower over the singers, sometimes their transport, other times capturing them in the perfect pose. The use of the creepy traditional marionettes is a nice touch (two regal statues also loom large over the last scene), though the off-stage sexual assault scene won’t cause too much offence (the abused dancers return bare-breasted and dirty later) since it’s written into the story, to trigger the Sicilians to action. The rushed ending where the French get their comeuppance by being massacred, feels clunky, with little time in the score to really do much on stage, as everyone drops to the floor. Whether or not all this worked entirely is debatable, though I would say to an extent it did not. Perhaps this production is best dubbed: plunder and puppetry in Palermo. 

The singing had highs and lows. Anush Hovhannisyan is Hélène, the Austrian princess sympathetic the plight of the Sicilians. She gets some of the best music here and she carried most of the show in an almost perfect voice, tender yet passionate when desired. Jung Son Yun was Henri, the young Sicilian who has the biggest character arch though an unsure future. His tenor is fine but some notes remained quashed and pushed too far. He still takes up the role with vigour.

The tension here is in his Star Wars moment, finding out that the French governor Montford is his father. So his dynamic between family and his nation is something he grabbles with most of the night (Hélène also has dramatically unsure moments prior to their wedding).  As Montford, Giorgio Caoduro has stage presence, but the voice was slightly underwhelming. As revolutionary Procida Wojtek Gierlach has a robust voice, though the character’s instability doesn’t help things (you never know where you are with him, resulting in the clamours ending).

Orchestra and chorus of WNO never cease in musical marvels, helping bring this Verdi rarity to fresh ears, something we might not see again in the Welsh capital for perhaps another 60 odd years. 

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Les vêpres siciliennes continues at the Wales Millennium Centre with performances of The Marriage of Figaro & Carmen, then on tour to Llandudno, Bristol, Southhampton, Liverpool, Milton Keynes, Plymouth, Norwich & Birmingham.  

Photo Credit: Johan Person

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