The WNO’s powerful choir and masterful conductor Carlo Rizzi excel in this disappointing production of Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes. A challenging opera, Les Vêpres, is let down by voices lacking the sufficient power required by Verdi’s music and an ill-judged set design. In contrast, the short but effective dances, choreographed by Caroline Finn of the National Dance Company Wales, add an extra dimension to the unfolding of the story.
The cast overall lacks voices that can match and rise above Verdi’s score, with the exception of Jung Soo Yun, who interprets Henri and has sufficient presence throughout the opera. The soprano Anush Hovhannisyan, interpreting La Duchesse Hélène, underperforms in the first part of the opera. She lacks coloratura, but her more spinto voice excels in the second part. The WNO have a strong Verdi repertoire. The choir is as strong as ever and so is the orchestra, conducted by Carlo Rizzi. The production is let down by the self-indulgent aestheticism of the set design by Raimund Bauer that falls for misogynistic forms.
Les Vêpres Siciliennes refers to the massacre in 1282 by Sicilians of the Angioine lords who had taken possession of Sicily from the Spanish Aragonese. Sicilians rise up in response to the rape of ‘their’ women. One need not be an anthropologist to know that women and their bodies have always been taken as the symbolic and spatial boundaries of the nation. Rape continues to be a weapon of war because of its symbolism. Women are owned by men. The enemy takes possession of land and power through rape. This includes the raping of men who are, in this instance, feminised.
In this production, the rape is conveyed by parading a dinner table displaying lavish food and naked women. This is followed by a woman with red marks on her naked back strapped sensuously to red strings. It is disturbing that in this day and age, one should remind directors that the glamorisation of violence against women is misogynistic. It is the same aesthetic indulgence seen in the film Nocturnal Animals by Tom Ford. Directors should stop making women into beautiful objects and beautiful victims. In contrast, the dance telling the story of the rape of Henri’s mother and his birth is powerful and tasteful. It is choreographed with subtlety and a touch of humour.
In Verdi’s opera, Sicilians rising up to the foreign conquerors is more than a nod to the Italian Risorgimento but also to the popular sentiment against despotic landowners. Yet the nationalistic references to dying for one’s country feel uncomfortable today, at a time of nationalistic nostalgia. The libretto cannot be changed but the set consisting of a series of black frames and an over indulgence in silhouettes makes for an oppressive atmosphere. The aestheticism of this production fails to grapple with the issues and to support the interpretation on stage.