Since its debut and initial success in Paris in 1855, Verdi’s Grand Opera Les Vêpres Siciliennes has had a low profile. Rarely performed or recorded it’s not a staple of any opera house's repertoire, in Italian or French. And it’s not difficult to pin down why, it appeared as Grand Opera started to go out of fashion, and it’s a bit of a flabby unwieldy beast. But there are some tremendous sections within it.

The flab is mostly in Act I. Despite the best efforts of Malin Byström (Hélène), Bryan Hymel (Henri), Erwin Schott (Jean Procida) and Michael Volle (De Montfort), and they are excellent, there’s a laboured feel to it all. It's a slog for orchestra too, however Conductor Maurizo Benini gets a rich fluid performance from them.

The huge multi-tiered set of the original Paris opera venue oppresses the stage as both audience and soldiers look in on the proceedings. There’s a serious point here about the manipulation of art for power but that’s generally lost as the opera goes on.

It’s in Act III when we hit the gold run. The image of an erupting Etna on the wall, contrasts with the gothic scene as De Montfort ponders and three ballerinas in black and various stages of pregnancy dance around him. Volle is magnificent in this bizarre and ghoulishly comical sequence. As the action moves to the ball we are in full goth mode with Byström cutting through the dark hued costumes in a raven black ballgown. With the chorus at their peak this is gruesome delight as the plotters are executed at the end.

It never really quite tops after that though the opening of Act IV with Hélène in prison and a loyalty torn Henri is sublime. In fact, there isn’t anything other than praise for the singing, chorus and acting throughout the performance.

The questions surround Stefan Herheim’s direction which goes a touch la-la in parts. Procida’s plotters look like a gang of Fagin’s from Oliver, all crooked hats and long coats There’s the child executioner, and one acting as cupid or maybe not. The wedding ritual has Helene covered to prevent Henri seeing her with a tittering retinue.

These are not minor points and do detract at times but taken with the fact that this is a bitty work anyway its eccentricities sort of fit in, so Herheim just about gets away with it.

It continues 17, 20, 25, 31 October, and 4 November.

Photos courtesy of Bill Cooper and the Royal Opera House
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