Children of violence

Giuseppe Verdi
Royal Opera House, until November 11

Benjamin Britten
Touring until December 6

Review from The Times Literary Supplement, 1 November 2013

Je n'accorde à personne le droit de diriger mes voeux!", exclaims Henri, the headstrong young hero of Verdi's Les Vêpres siciliennes. Without its context, his outburst reads like a universal exclamation, an article of faith for anyone who believes in the idea of moral freedom: others may decide my destiny and hold power over my movements and even actions, but no one can tell me how to feel about it. Coming from Henri, though, the exclamation is a particularly urgent one, and drenched in dramatic irony. It is urgent because Henri, a young Sicilian rebel, is standing before the tyrannical French governor of medieval Sicily, Guy de Montfort, who has Just released him from prison for unknown reasons and, while maintaining his freedom of movement, is expressly forbidding him from pursuing his passion for Hélène, a prominent Sicilian noblewoman and a sworn enemy of de Montfort. At the same time, the article of faith is simply mistaken.

Unbeknownst to him, de Montfort is his father, who raped his mother shortly after the French conquest of Sicily in a manner selfconsciously redolent of the abduction of the Sabine women by the early Romans. Born of violent conquest, and of the brutal elision of political and private acts of possession, Henri cannot help discovering filial affection for a man he had formerly sworn to hate.

Les Vêpres siciliennes was Verdi's first attempt to storm the fortress of French Grand Opera. When the invitation from the Opéra came, he made sure his contract stipulated he would work with the capital's most highly regarded librettist, Eugène Scribe. The partnership took some time to bear fruit; "J'ai besoin d'un suJet grandiose, passionné, original", Verdi wrote to the librettist before they eventually settled on Scribe's rewriting an earlier treatment about the Duc d'Albe (written for Fromental Halévy) which, though not exactly original, was not lacking in grand passions. Verdi also insisted on changing the setting to the 1282 uprising of Sicily against French occupying forces.

The problems Verdi experienced with the libretto and its author have often been held to account for the work's perceived failings. At its premiere, however, it was a notable success, one of the highlights of the Parisian world exhibition in 1855. If it lacks the levels of musical inspiration typical of Verdi at his very best, Vêpres is nonetheless an impressive and often profoundly beautiful score. Dramatically, too, it is cleverly structured, with the choruses and the duets acting as pivot points and conduits for the tangled analogies and contradictions between public and private conceptions of love and loyalty. The first scene of Act Three, during which Henri learns of his kinship with de Montfort, is a masterpiece of musico-dramatic fluency, in which Henri's eventual acceptance of the truth is shadowed by the formal progression towards a genuine duet.

All this goes some way to explain both why the Royal Opera's new production of the work is the first in the company's history, and why the company is to be congratulated on making it the centrepiece of their celebrations of Verdi's bicentenary. It is a brave undertaking, for the opera will not reward half-hearted attempts to mount it, and to their credit, the company have thrown everything at the show, with Antonio Pappano's preparation of his orchestra and cast demonstrating his customary mix of diligence, passion and panache. The casting, too, is stellar. Michael Volle is peerless as de Montfort, stinting neither on showing his character's odious and capricious nature nor on revealing his loneliness, selfpity and need to be loved. His voice has the requisite power as well as agility, and in the role's more lyrical moments - such as in Act Three - it has a disturbing beauty which, when combined with Volle's acting skills, proved irresistible in its demand for his audience's - and son's - unlikely sympathy. Bryan Hymel's portrayal of Henri is also emotionally and technically faultless. One can think of bigger names for the part, but Hymel has proved himself repeatedly on the Covent Garden stage in comparable roles such as Berlioz's Enée and Meyerbeer's Robert, and the decision to cast him here was absolutely right. Despite suffering from the early stages of a throat infection, Lianna Haroutounian, who is replacing Marina Poplavskaya for a portion of the run, is a moving and commanding Hélène, while Erwin Schrott's vocal command of the part of the fanatical rebel Jean Procida is so assured and effortlessly powerful that one can overlook his exaggerated acting.

In this respect, however, he seems to have been encouraged by his director, Stefan Herheim. Herheim has placed the idea of theatricality at the centre of his presentation of the work by incorporating the side elevation of an opera house auditorium into the sets for the chorus scenes, and some of the more intimate moments too, so that the French soldiers and others are watching, with various degrees of amusement, the stage action unfold. In doing so, he has added a further layer of irony to the work's central examination of the irreconcilability of public and private passions. For, if there is a sphere where people, if only temporarily, readily and actively submit to being told by others how to feel, it is the theatre.

Herheim has set the action in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, the (far from uncommon) idea being that the society which produced the work is examining itself through it. In addition to Gesine Völlm's lavish but largely traditional costume designs, the visual manifestion of this self-reflexive turn takes the spectacular form of gilded interior sections of an opera house which, in spite of their appearance of massive solidity, silently float off into the wings without warning, or swing round so the proceedings are viewed the other way around. Nor are the rest of Philipp Fürhofer's sets really what they seem to be, as mirrored wall sections reverse to reveal Sicilian landscapes.

That said, the success of Herheim's staging owes less to its Konzept than to the way each interlocking visual tableau seems so fluently to move with and from the music. The result is that each scene is marked by an extraordinary grace and conviction, and carried by a momentum which allows the audience to set to one side any puzzling directorial details without becoming irritated by their residual ambiguities. Perhaps a little too much is made of the theatre idea in the final act, which ends with floodlights shining into the auditorium from the stage so brightly that the stage becomes invisible by the end. But Verdi's final act is a troublesome creation - a series of increasingly awkward postponements of what is dramatically inevitable - and Herheim succeeds admirably in rebuilding the lost tension from the preceding act.

One of the best directorial interventions is the casting of Procida as director of the ballet corps, who is roughly beaten during a rehearsal (the overture) by the boorish French troops before the dancers are taken aside, the inference is, to be raped. As a reminder, the dancers - including the ghost of Henri's mother - frequently revisit the stage as the action unfolds. Their elegant and entirely classical dancing style becomes awkward and disJointed when "directed" by the French, so their continued presence on the stage acquires a kind of subversive and eventually nightmarish aspect. The dancing, by members of the Royal Danish ballet together with students from our own Royal Ballet school, is nicely done but the main ballet set-piece has been cut, following the decision by the Royal Ballet to withdraw from co-producing the opera.

One of the most interesting features of the production is the way it casts light on the psychology of rape and its changing portrayal, from the French soldiers' modelling of themselves on the ancient Romans to the presentation of Henri as a child of violence now himself imprisoned by the violence of his own contradictory passions. This plurality of perspective is echoed in one of BenJamin Britten's most neglected operas, The Rape of Lucretia, which has now been staged at Glyndebourne - by the company's touring division - for the first time since the work's unpromising premiere there in 1946. The neglect in the latter case is arguably Justified by Ronald Duncan's libretto, which is relentlessly "poetic" in away that drowns all the characters in a thick soup of laboured similes ("the oatmeal slippers of sleep" is one of many prime examples).

The production's director, Fiona Shaw, is obviously unable to do much about this, but she has provided an elegant solution to the work's other main question, which is how to handle the rather prudish-seeming Christian framework and the way, in the form of the two "choruses" (the male and female narrators), this leaks into the stage action proper. Britten's taut, glittering and superbly elegant score aside, this narrative seepage has always struck me as one of the opera's most compelling features. In particular, the way the supposedly detached male chorus seems almost actively to persuade Tarquin to forget his conscience and make a conquest of his friend's wife has interesting dramatic implications. Shaw's solution is to cast the two choruses as a pair of 1940s missionaries at an archaeological dig. The two "choruses" can therefore be seen to be actively reconstructing the story as it unfolds on stage, leading to a situation where their own beliefs and desires have a role to play in the account of the ancient Roman characters' motivations and actions. In addition to being visually simple and efficient - and thus of a piece with Britten's score - the device allows Shaw to dramatize not only the pair's overtly Christian response to the legend, but also their darker side. When night falls, the two archaeologists get so carried away in their outraged imaginings they end up tearing off their clothes and hopping into bed together, awakening the next morning to their own guilt and to the beautiful, innocent duetting of Lucretia's two maids.

The opera is wonderfully conducted by Nicholas Collon and benefits from some stunning performances, notably from Allan Clayton and Kate Valentine as the two narrators, and from Claudia Huckle as Lucretia, with a wonderfully rich but clear contralto. Duncan Rock's portrayal of Tarquin, too, was quite superb, portraying him as a complex character both excited and rather appalled by his actions.

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