Fathers and sons, fathers and daughters. When Verdi gets a thing about dads you know it will not end well. New productions of Verdi’s lesser-known works staged last week by two of our national companies – Les vêpres siciliennes at Welsh National Opera and Luisa Miller at English National Opera – revolve entirely around father figures, so straight away we could kiss goodbye to happy-ever-after. If only some mothers were allowed an appearance...
Verdi said that writing Les vêpres was such an effort it “would kill a bull”. He was struggling to complete the heavy demands of his first major commission for Paris, where five acts were expected, complete with sweeping spectacle and extensive ballet. With such unwieldy material, the work is rarely seen, so WNO’s decision to close its Verdi trilogy with a co-production with Theatre Bonn was a distinctly brave one, financially and artistically. It’s not an easy piece to love.
Eugène Scribe’s libretto is a reworking of his earlier Le duc d’Albe; he and Verdi simply switched the action to 13th-century Sicily, setting it loosely amid an actual event, when Vespers bells signalled the start of a bloody rebellion against French domination. Quite what Parisian audiences made of Verdi’s depiction of their ancient colonial cruelty can only be guessed at.
Guy de Montfort rules Sicily with implacable sadism. The aristocratic Hélène wants him dead in revenge for her brother’s death, and plots an uprising with her lover Henri and rebel leader Procida. When Montfort discovers that Henri is his son – born years earlier after he had raped a Sicilian – his sudden patriarchal tenderness warps into treacherous blackmail with horrendous results.
Straightforward storytelling is vital when a piece is this lengthy and overblown, and director David Pountney and conductor Carlo Rizzi achieve this admirably. Between them, they steer a clear course through a grim plot that sets highly charged personal conflict against a backdrop of political betrayal and seething revolt.
Each production in their trilogy has been staged within Raimund Bauer’s simple designs. This time, the movable panels of La forza del destino and Un ballo in maschera have become large open frames that wheel and twist through the action, serving as fortress walls and prison cells. Unsparingly black, the set matches the bleakness of the plot, with only the lavish uniforms of the French troops bringing any colour to the eye, but Fabrice Kebour’s lighting is inspirational, casting great shadows and silhouettes that further heighten the tense drama.
The extended ballet scene in Act III (introduced, according to Pountney, so that members of the Parisian Jockey Club could arrive after dinner to leer at the dancers and then take them out on the town) is turned neatly into a Shakespearean play within a play, telling of the birth of Montfort’s child and the death of the woman he raped. Caroline Finn’s choreography with National Dance Company Wales works well here, but in the last act, when dancing veiled attendants prepare Henri and Hélène for their doomed wedding, smearing them with blood, it seems overwrought and heavy-handed.
Anush Hovhannisyan makes an imposing Hélène, but intonation problems lurk within her warm, honeyed soprano, and there is simply no electricity with Henri, the man she is supposed to love. But then tenor Jung Soo Yun struggles hard to cut a heroic figure, though you have to admire his determination. Vocally, the evening belongs to Giorgio Caoduro’s granite-voiced Montfort and Wojtek Gierlach’s steely but stolid Procida. Plus WNO’s ever-reliable chorus, on terrific form here.
It’s hard to count the number of directorial and design cliches in ENO’s new Luisa Miller, a co-production with Oper Wuppertal, directed by Barbora Horáková. Balloons, clowns, masks, wonky dancing, graffiti, a beaten-up teddy bear, black paint smeared over a white box set: they all seem so wearily familiar, but try hard to disregard them: musically this production is a cut above.
Verdi saw great potential for his father fixation in a plot that features not one but two manipulative patriarchs. Bass James Creswell is tremendous as the cold-hearted Count Walter, vocally assured and frighteningly cruel towards his son Rodolfo, sung with melting lyricism and compelling power by tenor David Junghoon Kim. Baritone Olafur Sigurdarson, as Miller, father of Luisa, took a while to settle on opening night (hardly surprising in this repellent production) but then established a moving portrayal of a man terrified at losing his daughter to Rodolfo.
Elizabeth Llewellyn makes a luminous Luisa, her creamy soprano floating easily over some of Verdi’s most demanding writing, while Soloman Howard, as the conniving henchman Wurm, astonishes with the sheer power of his massive bass voice. Christine Rice brings some regal heft to the Duchess Federica, thwarted in her ambition to marry Rodolfo, and Nadine Benjamin delights as Laura, Luisa’s loyal friend. Fire springs from the pit under conductor Alexander Joel, who directs the stirring score (so much better than the ponderous Les vêpres) with engaging passion. And ENO’s long-suffering chorus rises above it all with distinction.
Star ratings (out of five)
Les vêpres siciliennes ★★★
Luisa Miller ★★★
Les vêpres siciliennes is at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, until 15 February, then touring until 9 May
Luisa Miller is at the Coliseum, London, until 6 March
• This article was amended on 24 February 2020 to correct a misspelling of the first name of Barbora Horákov.