Les Vêpres Siciliennes is an epic undertaking by the Royal Opera. Spanning five acts and four hours, it is somewhat of a marathon, where against all the odds the performers continue to battle through complex duets and arias, and the audience manage to stay awake after the novelty of a night at the opera has worn off! However, despite its daunting length, Verdi’s first original French grand opera has many engaging attributes to engage both opera aficionados and music novices alike.
Set in French occupied Sicily, Les Vêpres Siciliennes tells the story of a group of revolutionaries who are intent on overthrowing Viceroy Montfort in order to granting independence to their homeland. Their plights are teeming with hopes of revenge, betrayal and epiphany, as ardent Sicilian nationalist Henri discovers in an Star Wars esque “I am your father” like duet, that Montfort’s violated his mother when Sicily was first conquered, and is in fact his flesh and blood. Horrified, Henri refuses to recognise him as his father, yet familial ties force him to prevent Montfort’s assassination at the hands of Hélène and Procida, causing Henri to be cast out by his people, and more importantly, the woman he loves.
This intricate plotline that at first glance appears to be mainly political becomes an anachronism which allows the exploration of human relationships and characterisation. One of the most intriguing roles is that of Hélène. In mourning for her brother Frédéric, and inspired by Henri’s loyalty to his country, Hélène is a key player in the plot to overthrow the French and she herself is willing to die for her country. Her strength juxtaposes all other female characters in the opera – mere playthings for the conquering French, who at one point conduct a mass violation in which they compare themselves to the Romans during the rape of the Sabine women.
Verdi’s music – conducted by Maurizio Benini – is powerful and emotive, and ebbs over the audience from the stage, which acts as a pulsating epicentre of sound. It is admirable that the Royal Opera has also paid so much attention to other theatrical aspects of the production, and have incorporated ballet dancers, opulent props and a moveable set that recreates a stylized version of the very opera house Les Vêpres Siciliennes was originally written for. At times the opera’s different elements can become disparate and disjointed, such as the prettiness and almost twee nature of the ballet choreography not reflecting the horror and pain of the music and plot. However, over all the extent of consideration to the different performative elements of the opera renders it a feast for the senses, which satisfies the audience for almost all of its phenomenal length.
Les Vêpres Siciliennes is playing The Royal Opera House until 4th November 2017. For more information see www.roh.org.uk/productions/les-vepres-siciliennes-by-stefan-herheim