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The mystery of Stefan’s “Vêpres”

The much-anticipated Stefan Herheim production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes opened last night at the Royal Opera, and the New York TimesZachary Woolfe was something less than completely bowled over.

80 comments

  • La Valkyrietta says:

    ¡Qué raro, chicas! Yo jamás pensé que esta ópera fuera considerada una rareza. ¿Lo es? Live and learn.

  • Todd says:

    Woolfe seems to me the best of the NYTimes critics, though that’s not saying much. But to single out the Xerxes as one of Herheim’s best productions--it has to be his least interesting and most dumbed-down staging, edging out even the new Meistersinger--doesn’t make me want to trust his judgment on the Vepres.

  • Niel Rishoi says:

    Disappointing reviews, all of them. Not of the opera, but the reviews themselves. Just stuff about the production, and their own take -- in other words, the reviews are more about the reviewers. Nothing anywhere with details about how the score was sung -- phrases, observations of markings, dynamics, technical considerations. All that hard work the singers put into this (Schrott gets merely parenthesized), and here they get scant mention of anything they actually did in the way of singing. So many of today’s reviewers don’t appear to read music, or they don’t know the score, or haven’t prepped in advance.

    • manou says:

      It must be because they are pretentious Oxbridge types -- or should I say a passel of overeducated prats.

    • Chanterelle says:

      No time to write in real detail, but just a few thoughts about the Vêpres opening night, before I actually read the reviews and not just comments by Parterrians.

      Perhaps the reason reviews have stinted on the singing/conducting is a) the singing wasn’t that remarkable, and b) the production was overwhelming--in a good way IMO.

      On the singing: Haroutounian makes some lovely sounds, but she’s a little short on top, and the Bolero, er, needs work. Schrott started out sounding like he was trying too hard to darken the sound, but eased up to sing with more forward focus. Michael Volle doesn’t have a lovely voice but he sang well and certainly put the part across. Hymel also sang well, with the best French style; he also sounded smaller to my ears than at the Met (and he definitely bleated somewhere toward the end. Man that part demands stamina).

      Papano’s conducting allowed plenty of breathing room; it was clear that musical decisions were not independent of theatrical ones. Herheim staged a number of scenes in a melodramatic hush-hush mood; this is perhaps not so Verdian, but I was never blown away by the singing, more by the quality of the characterizations. The production was so out there that total commitment and conviction were required of the performers, and we really got that, something you don’t always find in regie productions.

      This is the fourth Herheim production I’ve seen live; it felt both more bold and more simple than the others. I loved his Parsifal, but found it overloaded with ideas. Here, by slimming down the details (Herheim does love his jokes and gimmicks) the message was stronger. I came away with an indelible sense of two main themes: 1) no guts no glory, and 2) the transformation of a man into his opposite. The chorus was constantly switching among roles: Sicliians/French, and Belle Epoque operagoers. Henri, the Sicilian peasant, ends up in a French soldier’s uniform. Procida, the broken Sicilian patriot, becomes consumed by his own lust for vengeance which turns him, literally, into a travesty of his ideals. The initially evil Montfort, shaken by paternal love (Verdi and his father issues!) becomes the benign dictator. I can forgive Haroutounian for not internalizing Helène’s transformation on short rehearsal time. She also needed more attitude, which Poplavskaya has in spades.

      I wasn’t 100% on board with all the gimmicks, but overall I found the production mesmerizing. It was fun to see the ballet (and such a different style from the athletic NYC school--low to the ground, delicate, though not as preening as Paris Opera Ballet). I found the set transformations magical. I did experience a number of WTF moments, and if it all seemed a bit ADHD at times, well, that’s Herheim’s natural exuberance IMO. See, this IS about the reviewer: Herheim seeks a personal response, and he certainly gets it. I was stunned by the clarity with which his message came through--not at all, “oh aren’t I the clever director?”.

      This was my third Vêpres since June. Angela Meade at Caramoor (concert performance) and Elza van den Heever (Frankfurt) certainly gave better Bolero. But this evening was far more thrilling overall. Have I drunk the Herheim KoolAid? Is Herheim the new Sellars? Discuss.

      • laddie says:

        That’s a wonderful take Chanterelle. You allow us to really understand Herheim and his methods. I have only seen videos but the historical, the surreal, and those *jokes* and details always make it for me I think primarily because they are also so musical in their inspiration. ZW appears to have great admiration for Herheim and I am sure wants MORE from him, as would I, if I were a better student of Herheim and his approach. As it is, I am very much looking forward to seeing the broadcast.

      • Belfagor says:

        Chanterelle, very enjoyable to read, an I think we had similarly enjoyable experiences. However, one tiny aside I would comment on --

        “Herheim staged a number of scenes in a melodramatic hush-hush mood; this is perhaps not so Verdian,”

        From the very start of the Overture, and peppered throughout this score, more so than in any other Verdi wrote, is that anapestic figure that Verdi associates with death, or extreme peril, (it’s a three note drum tattoo -- dadaDUM) -- it’s the very first thing you hear in the Overture, it forms the basis of the ensemble in Act 2 after the Sicilian women have been carried off by the French, and is usually hushed, though can explode into a furious climax, it underpins the Act 2 curtain with the offstage barcarolle, with the Sicilians wanting vengeance -- this is a musical signature that underlies Verdi’s depiction of the conspirator in this opera. Herheim and Pappano even include that brief postlude to Procida’s Act 2 aria ‘O toi, Palerme’ -- a sort of hushed conspirators cabaletta that is dramatically risible (and often cut), as the chorus have to appear, make conspiratorial noises, only to be told by Procida to shut up, and he shovels them off the stage. It’s all like hide and seek, and the sort of nonsense that Gilbert and Sullivan presumably had in mind when they wrote ‘With cat like tread (CRASH!)’ -- so I thought Herheim’s hush hush whizzing through doors and curtains, though a bit of a send up, chimed perfectly with Verdi’s approximation of some of the more fatuous conventions of Meyerbeerian grand opera.

        I thought his production in general showed an acute awareness of the central tenet of the opera, nothing to do with Vespers or sicilians, but Verdi’s calling card to out-top Meyerbeer as the top cat of Paris’s opera -- ‘La grand boutique’ -- and the reigning composer in mid 19th century Paris, which was, as Walter Benjamin so aptly put it ‘The capital of the nineteenth century’.

        I thought Woolf’s critique totally inadequate in that respect -- yes setting operas within a theatre within a theatre might have been done before, but if there’s one opera in which that approach is truly germane to the subject in hand, it is this one.

        • Camille says:

          Thank you once more for the thought about the setting of the stage within a stage konzept as I, frankly, wondered what the problem there was. Sometimes that device really works and in this hoopdy opera I would have thought it entirely appropriate.

          And most certainly YES to the Verdi showing up Meyerbeer on his own turf. From my perspective, the conquering of La Grande Boutique was what it was ALL about. That, and the filthy lucrum.

          Thank you again and ever so much for your thoughts, a great guidepost.

      • Regina delle fate says:

        Wow Chanterelle -- you do get around. Carambolas. Frankfurt, London all in the space of three months. You must be a Vepres nut! :)

        • Chanterelle says:

          Nah, just trying to take advantage of necessary trips. I’m more of a Herheim fan than a Vêpres nut.

          Belfagor, thanks for elaborating on Herheim’s parodistic reading of that anapestic figure. I should have caught that, but there was so much else going on that despite noticing its emphasis the meaning went over my head.

          Maybe Herheim is more like Mark Morris than Peter Sellars…

    • Todd says:

      Let’s see if I have this right, Niel Rishoi. Anything that’s not on the music is “just” about the production, and about the reviewers themselves--who, because they’re not focusing exclusively on the part of a hybrid art form you think is more important therefore have no education and are ill-prepared. Maybe opera is the wrong genre for you?

    • willym says:

      Niel Rishoi -- one of the problems with today’s reviews -- and I have a feeling that James Jordan can back this up -- is the amount of space that is allocated by an editor to this sort of thing. Gone are the days of the half page spread devoted to a performance -- witness the New York Times review of Natoma that la Cieca linked to recently: http://parterre.com/2013/10/15/not-convincing-as-a-drama/

      This is a luxury that few reviewers have -- Gimme 600 words on that thing you saw last night and I’ll see if I can cut it down to 500, is more like it these days.

  • willym says:

    ljushuvud many thanks for posting the various reviews. However as they are by a bunch of poncy Brits, probably all with degrees from some uppity British University (a sign of elitism in some parts of the world these days) they probably bear no weight on this side of the Atlantic.

    • Krunoslav says:

      willym--

      The question is, do the poncy Brits have Musettas, Masettos and Schaunards in their close acquaintance who can be hired unheard at the Met Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco and Houston? :)

      • willym says:

        Ah but Krunoslave we’re talking about the reviewers not the administrative staff as the above mentioned houses.

        Not sure how true it is but I’ve heard its often a case of “if you want so and so, you have to take what’s-his/her-name as well.”

  • semira mide says:

    Verdi. Doubt there will be any production discussion.
    You may have to poke around,but it will be worth it.

    http://www.rai.tv/dl/RaiTV/programmi/media/ContentItem-e031f0d7-ff9c-41ee-884e-29905a270476.htm

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    I was expecting to see beautiful images of this production, but am disappointed that there’s only one photo that looks like a bad production of an opera based on a horror movie.

    • Regina delle fate says:

      Wait for Intermezzo to review it -- her posting will be lavishly illustrated with most of the pix released by the press office, plus her own snaps of the curtain calls.

  • Su Traditor says:

    Popsy is on tonight!

  • Su Traditor says:

    Just had a cast change

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      Heavens, it’s true:

      http://www.roh.org.uk/news/marina-poplavskaya-to-perform-in-les-vepres-siciliennes-on-monday-21-october

      Christ knows what’s going on.

      Manou, we look forward to a full report.

      • Su Traditor says:

        Doubting Thomas!

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          My apologies. It just seemed so unlikely.

          • Regina delle fate says:

            Well, it’s me who needs to eat his words. She was supposed to be out for the first three performances, but maybe the not exactly ecstatic reviews for Haroutounian have done for her! I’d heard that Popsy was threatening legal action because she’s not sick. It’s Robert Le Diable all over again!

            • Camille says:

              Where Poppy goes, libel follows.

              Let’s hope the “voice-lift” operation was a success, assuming that was her “illness”.

              Guessing now it will surely be she on the simulcast/broadcast/transmission.

            • MontyNostry says:

              I’m going in 10 days’ time. Perhaps she will be ‘sick’ again by then.

            • Porgy Amor says:

              Maybe she didn’t need a complete voice-lift, just resurfacing and liberal injections of technique fillers.

              Quite a turn of events. I cannot wait to hear how it goes.

            • Camille says:

              Botox for the vocal folds is quite a quick procedure which does not necessitate being “ILL” for three performances, but only one.

              If she would ONLY steer clear of Verdi fioriture. Well, she has the tempestuous temperament for this difficult role, of that there is no doubt.

            • Cocky Kurwenal says:

              So am I, Monty. Will be very interested to hear how the intervening performances pan out!

            • Regina delle fate says:

              Apparently Haroutounian is really sick, so they had no option but to put MP on.

            • antikitschychick says:

              Its kind of a nebulous situation because perhaps the ROH administration thinks (or wants to give the impression) that they were doing her a favor by not letting her go on, in the anticipation of a bad performance that could damage her reputation, but if she was indeed willing and ready to fulfill her contractual obligations then lying to audience members with the hackneyed “illness” excuse could damage her reputation even more so, given that cancellations are seen as worse than bad singing these days, which makes sense from the business side of things but not so much from the artistic one lol.

            • PetertheModest says:

              Popsy is not sick ?! All this is well confusing.

            • Krunoslav says:

              Was Maraln Niska not available?

            • Porgy Amor says:

              For anyone who hasn’t surfed over that way yet today, there’s a little more detail on this in the follow-up comments to Intermezzo’s entry on it. Poplavskaya missed the final rehearsals, so she’ll be sort of feeling her way through it, apart from whatever vocal issues there are.

  • Regina delle fate says:

    What a palaver!

  • PetertheModest says:

    I’m very much looking forward to reports of Popsy’s performance (acting and singing), though this might be work-in-progress.