Across five sprawling acts a typically Verdian tale unfolds – father and son, divided loyalties, love and death – but even with the excision of a 30-minute ballet from the third act Les Vêpres siciliennes runs to four hours. If any opera needs help to make it work for a modern audience it's this Parisian hommage to the Meyerbeer school of overblown extravaganzas.
The solution favoured by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim, making his UK début, is to slap on the big bangs and posit a parallel plot. The former, in designs by Philipp Fürhofer that are so big they can only be fully appreciated from the centre stalls, are eye-popping; the latter, about which more anon, mind-messing.
Sicilian rebels Henri and Hélène have two things in mind: to get married, and to free their island from French occupation. Alas, in a twist that could only exist in an opera or a Star Wars movie, Henri discovers that the French governor, Montfort, is his father. The rebel leader Jean Procida is not impressed.
Notwithstanding the opera's scale, this quartet of central roles shoulders practically all of the vocal duties. On paper they have been well cast, but results are mixed. Michael Volle is magnificent as Montfort, his charcoal baritone serving a multifaceted psychological reading of a complex, paradoxical man. He is well matched by the Henri of American tenor Bryan Hymel: their extended duet in Act Three, ‘Quand ma bonté toujours nouvelle', is a rare oasis of intimate drama in an evening dominated by brouhaha.
Lianna Haroutounian floored me when she stood in for Anja Harteros in Don Carlo recently, but here (deputising again, this time for an ailing Marina Poplavskaya) she struggled. Understandably nervous in the first act she gradually warmed to her task until, at around the three hour mark, the tell-tale signs of waning stamina began to affect her singing. Descending phrases ended up south of the note and during her fifth-act sicilienne, ‘Merci, jeunes amies', the Paris-based soprano was hard-pressed to stay in time even with Antonio Pappano at his most sympathetic.
The Royal Opera's Music Director and Orchestra had a blindingly good evening. Pappano conducts with much greater freedom now that he has stopped using a baton, and his performances have an organic excitement about them. Even he, though, was hard-pushed to rein in Erwin Schrott from some look-at-me excesses. It's not entirely the Uruguayan's fault; Herheim has characterised action-man Procida as an epicene dancing master, a conceit that Schrott has taken as the green light for a display of ham acting not seen at this address since he himself turned Don Giovanni into a pantomime. He is blest with one of the warmest and strongest bass-baritone voices on the circuit, yet on opening night his swaggering account of the famous ‘Palerme' aria was hampered by tuning issues and some very approximate French pronunciation.
Herheim's placing of Les Vêpres siciliennes at the Paris Opéra in 1855, the date of its première there, makes for rich spectacle but limited logic. The director appears to be commenting on the rape of art by society's philistines, but it's a tight fit into those shoes for poor old Verdi. Audiences are likely to feel lost unless they do a double homework in advance: to unravel the basic plot and to mug up on Herheim's ideas. These, from the violation of a ballerina during the overture (the by-product of which is our hero, Henri) to a surreal final act with Schrott shoe-horned into a black wedding dress and a small child let loose with an executioner's axe, are increasingly bizarre. The only thing missing is a falling chandelier.