Brilliance and Frustration

Verdi – Les Vêpres siciliennes

Hélène – Lianna Haroutounian
Henri – Bryan Hymel
Procida – Erwin Schrott
Guy de Montfort – Michael Volle
Ninetta – Michelle Daly
Thibault – Neal Cooper
Daniéli – Nicolas Darmanin
Mainfroid – Yun Jungsoo
Robert – Kim Jihoon

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano.
Stage Director – Stefan Herheim.

Royal Opera House, London. Thursday, October 17th, 2013.

In Michel Tremblay’s wonderful novel La Nuit des princes charmants, about a young opera lover in Montreal (how I identified with that novel!), at one point the protagonist turns to his neighbour and expresses his displeasure at the show. The lady replies by saying what he had that he had completely ruined her evening. I always worry that when making comments on Twitter or writing on my blog that my personal feelings, when I don’t enjoy a show, may in turn ruin someone else’s enjoyment of their evening. I know how much pleasure opera gives, there are so many posts on this blog illustrating that, and in being able to write about something I’ve seen, I really don’t want to in any way ruin anyone’s experience. At the same time, the reason I write my blog and post on Twitter is to express my feelings on seeing a show in the hope that it may be informative to someone seeing the show in the future or to start a discussion on the show itself. I am very much aware that my opinions are personal and definitely not universal.

It’s always exciting to come across a work for the first time, especially one that is so rarely performed in the hands of a master director, a highly promising cast and conductor. If this one, for me, did not quite add up to the sum of its parts it certainly displayed great technical accomplishment, detailed rehearsal and incredible dedication.

Stefan Herheim is known as a great director and this was the second of his shows that I have seen. I previously saw his Rusalka at the Liceu and it left me frustrated and annoyed simply because the bulk of the action took place in the very corner of the stage that my seat had no vision of. Tonight I felt much of the same. He is an incredibly visionary director, the level of detail that goes into each production is staggering. But there is a fundamental issue and that is how much you get out of a production definitely depends on where you sit. I think the best views for this show would certainly have been in the centre of the theatre and also on the right. I always appreciate that for those, like me, who prefer to buy cheaper tickets and go more frequently, that we do have to make compromises in the quality of seats, and there are times in certain productions that things will be missed, and I am under no illusion in that respect. However, in Herheim’s case, given the enormous level of detail that goes into his shows, I would suggest that anyone thinking of going strongly consider looking at booking a seat in the centre or perhaps just going to houses such as the Deutsche Oper, where all the seats have a view of the stage.

Despite this there were some incredible stage pictures and the sets (Philipp Fürhofer) were absolutely stunning. A theatre within a theatre which constantly revolved around the stage. I’d rather not comment too much more about the staging just because I don’t feel comfortable discussing something I haven’t completely been able to absorb. It’s certainly worth looking at.

I’ve heard some truly outstanding Verdi conducting over the last year and unfortunately tonight was not one of them. What Nicola Luisotti and Paolo Arrivabeni both conducting Nabucco had in common was an understanding that early Verdi just needs a helping hand to keep it going. Speeds have to be swift and attack has to be sharp. Rhythms need to be pointed and things kept moving. Sadly, for me, tonight, Antonio Pappano just allowed the piece to drag rather than live. It’s a shame because it could have been such an uplifting evening. It did flow well though and certainly the tempi had a logical relationship to each other, it’s just that it felt like it lacked life and drama, the very two qualities this music needs to really come alive.

The singing seemed to betray sings of a long and fraught rehearsal schedule and first night nerves. Lianna Haroutounian first impressed me as a superb Elisabetta in Don Carlo earlier this year. She is certainly a notable new talent – the voice is big, rich and vibrant – but she is also very early in her career. Tonight there were signs that she had perhaps given too much, too soon and towards the end she certainly sounded quite tired. She is a undoubtedly a singer to watch but I very much hope that she surrounds herself with people who can help her develop and make the right choice so that she can build a career worthy of the natural talent she has. Erwin Schrott is the owner of an incredibly beautiful bass voice. The voice was large and had real depth to the sound. Unfortunately, he pushed it horribly so that his glorious opening aria was at times flat and at other times sharp. I don’t feel comfortable commenting on his acting given the view I had but it certainly felt that he was not making the most of his naturally impressive instrument.

Bryan Hymel’s compact tenor certainly had all the notes and once he had hit his stride at the start of act 4 really struck me with a strong sense of line and use of words. Up until that point, diction was somewhat unclear and the voice didn’t quite carry as much as it could have. Again, I’m sure that so much could have been put down to first night nerves. Michael Volle impressed by his willingness to sing legato and the strength of his voice. There were points when he resorted to yelling but his was perhaps the most rounded performance of the evening. His diction was also excellent. The supporting roles were fine although not particularly memorable. The quality of the diction ranged from excellent to ‘what language are they singing in?’.

I’m very happy that I had the opportunity to hear the piece as I don’t know when an opportunity might come my way again. It was performed with great care and attention yet perhaps that was the problem, it needed to live dangerously and it didn’t quite catch fire. The staging was frustrating – revealing a director of great imagination but also one who perhaps did not bear in mind the nature of the theatre so that so much detail was lost. I would very much like to see another of Herheim’s productions but I know that when I do, it will be in a theatre where I know I am guaranteed a good view of the stage. It was a mixed evening and certainly worth seeing. If it didn’t quite live up to its promise musically tonight that may well yet improve over the run.

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