If opera was only about theatrical spectacle and fine singing, this new Verdi production would count as a success. The Royal Opera has gone to town for the composer’s bicentenary, choosing one of his least performed mature dramas and tackling it in its most demanding edition – the gargantuan grand-operatic text Verdi was obliged to furnish for his first commission from the leading institution of his day, the Paris Opéra. For artistic ambition you can’t fault the endeavour, and there are many felicities in the course of a long evening – primarily the sense of scale and style that the conductor, Antonio Pappano, brings to the score.
The singing, too, has polish: all four principals grapple intelligently with an idiom that didn’t come naturally to Verdi. Bryan Hymel is to be congratulated for his ardent rendition of the tenor role, and Lianna Haroutounian for her mostly comfortable traversal of a taxing soprano part, even if her spinto lacks the agility to bring the house down in her Act Five showpiece. The baritone Michael Volle gives a big performance physically, vocally and histrionically, and Erwin Schrott’s generous bass fills the house.
The plot is one of conflicting public and private loyalties during the 13th-century French occupation of Sicily – not what you would call a modern drama. Stefan Herheim, renowned for interpreting operas through their historical context, tries to sell it as a metaphor for the conflicts swirling through the Paris Opéra at the time of the 1855 premiere. And so, within a dazzling milieu of ballet dancers and gilded theatre balconies, the Sicilians are the Opéra’s artists and the French a political and social elite who “use and abuse art”. Procida the revolutionary becomes a camp ballet-master. Montfort the tyrant is Napoleon III, France’s first popularly elected emperor.
It’s a one-stop concept that requires a constant leap of the imagination, without really illuminating anything. But the designers, Philipp Fürhofer and Gesine Völlm, have gone for broke, and thanks to Herheim’s stagecraft, the eye is constantly engaged. In a perverse way, the evening is faithful to the ethos of empty spectacle that gave birth to this and countless other operas at the Opéra.