Monday, December 16, 2013


Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Eugene Scribe and Charles Duveyrier
Conducted by Antonio Pappano
Directed by Stefan Herheim
Captured live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, September 17, 2013
Presented on screen by Palace Cinemas

Review by Len Power 1 December 2013

Only a few years ago, leafing through old, tattered copies of London’s ‘Punch’ magazine or New York’s ‘The New Yorker’ in your doctor’s waiting room, you could only sigh with envy at the list of musicals, plays and operas with top artists that those cities played host to.  Now, we have digital live performances of these shows being screened in our cinemas even while a particular show is still running overseas.  These aren’t films based on a show.  They are the actual show as seen live on stage.  High definition cameras recording the event and masterly editing techniques ensure that we can enjoy the show at a fraction of the price of a seat and that’s not counting the cost of an airfare to get there in the first place!

I took the opportunity recently to see my first ever production of Giuseppe Verdi’s rarely performed opera, ‘The Sicilian Vespers’, which was beamed in to Canberra’s new Palace Cinemas as part of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden’s season of digital live performances.

This opera was the first of two that Verdi wrote with a French text for the Paris Opera.  It was first performed in 1855, putting it between La Traviata and the first version of Simon Boccanegra.  It was an attempt to emulate the success of Meyerbeer’s Parisian grand operas but it’s rarely heard today.  In fact, this production which opened in October is also the first time it has been staged by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and marks Verdi’s bicentenary this year.

This production differs from the normally expected staging.  Norwegian director, Stefan Herheim, has moved the action of the opera from 13th century, French-occupied Sicily to 1855 Paris, the year of the opera’s premiere, and sets it in the Salle le Peletier, the theatre in which that first performance took place. Not only does this point up the tensions between the people and the military but also shows how artists are exploited by the society that creates them.

Designer, Philipp Fuerhofer, has designed a lavish and remarkable set showing cross-sections of auditorium and stage.  While it looked superb, adding this level of complexity made the story confusing at times.  Another surprise was that the half hour long third act ballet, a requirement for Paris operas at the time it was written, has disappeared, although dance still remains an important element of the production throughout the show with excellent choreography by Andre De Jong.

There was thrilling chorus singing throughout the opera and Michael Volle as Montfort, the French governor and Bryan Hymel as Henri, his illegitimate son by a Sicilian peasant woman, sang their highly emotional roles superbly.  Lianna Haroutounian, a late replacement for the ailing originally scheduled soprano, sang the role of Helene well, if a bit tentatively at times.  Conductor, Antonio Pappano, did excellent work with the orchestra and huge cast, keeping the tension and colour in the music throughout the performance.

Although four and a half hours long including two intervals, the opera was constantly enjoyable.  The picture and sound quality in the Palace cinema was excellent.  Next in this season of broadcast operas at the Palace is Verdi’s ever-popular, ‘Aida’, from December 20 to 23.  I’ll see you there!

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 15 December 2013.

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