Vocally impressive, visually confusing: Les Vêpres Siciliennes in Munich.

It was another first time to discover a new opera in the exploration journey – it was the first time to hear Verdi’s  Les Vêpres Siciliennes live in one of my beloved opera houses – Bayerisches Staatsoper in Nationaltheater.

Previously I have seen part of the broadcast from Royal Opera House with Erwin Schrott, but as usual with broadcasts, it never provides you full enjoyment and live theatre experience.

There were no special expectations built up, no intense preparation except synopsis and a brief historical context check. Even in detail review and interview with stage director Antú Romero Nunes by my favourite Latvian opera critic Jegors Jerohomovičs was postponed for reading after my own review.

The opera originally is set in 13th century, during the Sicilian fight for independence from French oppressors. As in historic event, Sicilian uprising started when societal and personal agendas clashed, so Verdi has brought the story to higher context adding a political component, placing grieving sister of Duke Fredrik of Austria, Helene as the centerpoint for rebellion uprising.

The biggest disappointment was the stage design and direction- if the use of black textile curtain and black plastic sheets as the background and major stage props seemed amusing or interesting in stage one, extensive usage of those further on started to irritate. Similar with makeup and skull masks for antagonist groups of French and Sicilians – the face colouring in white with blackened eyes, melting under the extreme heat of the auditorium, of rubber skull masks for the chorus as well as dancers representing Sicilians did not make much sense. The only association and link I could fish from my subconscious memories was a discovery of large Cappucine cemetery with mummified corpses.

Photo by Wilfried Hösl

The singers were mostly left on their own, which frequently ended with a classical park–and-bark solution even for experienced stage professionals. The costumes were designed to clearly determine which group the individual represents, e.g. Henri changing from simple clad Sicilian into french uniform in act 4. In that context, peculiar shiny outfit of Procida was an outlier, seemingly belonging to the chief of some Indian tribe. Involvement of the dancers in some scenes can be praised as smart directorial finding, while in others, especially techno dance when Omer Meir Wellber put on headphones and some of the orchestra members spent time with hand muffed ears was not only disturbing but interfered with Verdi music and disrupted the flow of the opera. Some audience members obviously liked the intermezzo dance very much and cheered enthusiastically while many others did not shy off and loudly booed it.

All the shortcomings of confused directorial effort were compensated by the outstanding cast. The performances of all four lead soloists were exemplary, I was happy for a new discovery of George Petean as well as Rachel Willis-Sorensen, though audience immensely enjoyed Bryan Hymel and Erwin Schrott.

Rachel Willis Sorensen as Helene seemed like the perfect fit in the role – both her appearance – royal posture and grace and vocal capabilities were great assets for creating a credible and engaging character.

Helene and Henri. Photo by Wilfried Hösl

She has a pleasant voice, seven if sometimes it has been challenging to go for all top notes when her projection subsides. Very rich and sonorous middle register. Unfortunately, I did not have enough opportunity to see her acting ability due to a high viewpoint but seemed that some stage chemistry between her and Bryan Hymel was missing, – it might be just a directorial problem.

Bryan Hymel, as usual, approached the role fearlessly, with admirable confidence and energy. As I have said before, I really like his middle register, but when he switches to the head register and forces projection, the voice is losing part of its beauty and reminds me of Rolando Villazon not at his best day. Nevertheless, Hymel is one of the best tenors for the heroic repertoire in grand operas without a doubt, and he has a wide variety of roles for further development. From all the roles I have seen him before this one could be the best performance.

Erwin Schrott as Procida. Photo by Wilfried Hösl

Erwin Schrott received enthusiastic audience reaction just after his first aria delivered, and without a doubt, it was highly professional and beautiful interpretation. He exudes confidence and grace, the timbre is very delightful with deep resonating velvety sound.

George Petean was a new name for me and was a pleasant discovery with his rich baritone and stage charisma. Both his acting and vocal performance received high praise from the audience.

The orchestra under the guidance of Omer Meir Wellber did a great job, regardless of hot auditorium and techno ballet scene, which most of the musicians obviously disliked,- with a few exceptions.

It is obvious why this particular opera is relatively rarely staged – it requires at least 4 excellent singers with great stamina, smart stage director and active, engaging chorus. Not all opera houses have the capability to mobilize such forces. BSO almost succeeded – let’s classify stage direction experiment as an accidental misfortune.

Giuseppe Verdi.  Les vêpres siciliennes

Performance  on July 29th, 2018

Conductor Omer Meir Wellber
Director  Antú Romero Nunes
Stage Matthias Koch
Costumes Victoria Behr
Sound Interference Nick & Clemens Prokop
Choreographie Dustin Klein
Light Michael Bauer
Dramaturgy Rainer Karlitschek
Chorus Stellario Fagone
Hélène Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Ninetta Helena Zubanovich
Henri Bryan Hymel
Guy de Montfort George Petean
Procida Erwin Schrott
Danieli Matthew Grills
Mainfroid Galeano Salas
Robert Callum Thorpe
Thibaut Long Long
Le Sire de Béthune Alexander Milev
Le Comte de Vaudemont Johannes Kammler

Bayerisches Staatsorchester

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper

SOL Dance Company (Leitung: Eyal Dadon)

One thought on “Vocally impressive, visually confusing: Les Vêpres Siciliennes in Munich.

  1. Sounds like a valiant attempt, even if not everything worked out. George Petean and Bryan Hymel have both sung here in Frankfurt in various years. I find Les vêpres siciliennes interesting because Verdi wrote it for Paris and the libretto is in French, but the French are the bad guys, so to speak. We had a quite good production of it here in Frankfurt not long ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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