Opera and ballet collide in The Royal Opera’s new production of Les Vêpres siciliennes
We look at Stefan Herheim’s vision for Verdi’s dark tale of love and revenge.
Set model of Stefan Herheim’s new production of Les Vêpres siciliennes, set designs by Philipp Fürhofer © ROH
Stefan Herheim’s inventive opera productions have won worldwide acclaim. As rehearsals get underway for his UK debut, The Royal Opera’s first ever staging of Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes, we look at some of the ideas behind Herheim’s vision.
Hélène longs to avenge her brother’s death at the hands of the powerful Guy de Montfort. She plots Montfort’s demise, together with her lover Henri and the revolutionary firebrand Jean Procida, who is driven by his own dark hatred. Henri’s discovery that his life and Montfort’s are closely entwined throws him, Montfort and Hélène into confusion – but nothing can shield them from the horror to come.
Verdi’s first grand opera – but the last of a dying genre
Les Vêpres siciliennes was a tremendous success on its premiere, performed 62 times at the Paris Opéra in the first year alone. It was Verdi’s first work explicitly intended for the Opéra, and he obeyed the exacting conventions of the genre, exemplified by Meyerbeer’s operas, to the letter – including inserting a lavish set-piece ballet at the opera’s centre. But the Parisian grand opera was on its way out, ceding to operetta and ballet, and Verdi’s contribution quickly fell from the repertory. The Royal Opera’s production uses Verdi’s original French libretto and relocates the action to the stage of the Paris Opéra itself, in 1855, the year of the opera’s premiere. The innate theatricality of the warring choruses of Sicilian and French is confirmed by the costumes; the Sicilians wear plush, romantic reimaginings of peasant dress, while the French wear Second Empire military costume or the lavish gowns of the Opéra audience.
Ballet: beauty, deception and the corruption of purity
A set-piece ballet was a crucial part of grand opera, and the ballet was notoriously used by its male sponsors as a grooming ground for their mistresses and courtesans. This seedy voyeurism was in sharp contrast to the ethereal beauty of the white-gowned dancers on stage, a beauty pioneered in the quintessential romantic ballet Giselle. But this hypocrisy only added to the deception at the heart of dance, where the dancers’ elegance, grace and ease hide extraordinary physical sacrifices. The Royal Opera’s production threads themes of dance and voyeurism throughout with a corps of eight ballerinas.
A complex attitude to power
At the time of the opera’s premiere France was ruled by Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. He had been democratically elected president in 1848 – but in an 1851 coup had named himself emperor, so becoming France’s first president and last monarch. After years spent in exile the emperor’s newfound stability enabled him to find a wife, Eugénie, and by 1855 he was swapping his image as militaristic hero for one as a bourgeois family man. The Royal Opera’s production sees Montfort as a man whose ruthless thirst for power has granted him everything but happiness, and for whom the discovery of a family is a last chance for redemption.
The march of death
Les Vêpres siciliennes hides a dark heart beneath its lavish splendour. Verdi wove an unmistakable death motif throughout the opera, which marches right from the overture through to the opera’s shattering climax. The Royal Opera’s production respects both the score’s grandeur and its sinister nature, alternating a richly coloured Sicilian backdrop with a black-curtained funereal perversion of the Paris Opéra’s auditorium.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A Olde OBE, Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Mr and Mrs Baha Bassatne and The Maestro’s Circle.