Stefan Herheim set his recent whacky, magical Salzburg Meistersinger at the time Wagner wrote his comedic masterpiece and here he’s done it again, relocating Verdi’s tale of 13th-century French knights oppressing Sicilian peasantry to the Paris of Napoleon III. By planting the action backstage at the Paris Opéra itself, he hopes to reveal some kind of existential truth behind the phoney glitter of 19th-century theatricals. That smacks of artful mumbo jumbo and it doesn’t entirely hold water, nevertheless he has chosen a suitably sumptuous setting and Covent Garden have done it proud with gilded sets, magnificent costumes and effects that wouldn’t seem out of place in The Phantom of the Opera.
The Overture gives us the backstory as nasty French general Guy de Montfort has his wicked way with a ballerina captured as collateral damage in some kind of military uprising. The corps de ballet, done up as Les Sylphides, are one of the ornaments of this production, the freedom fighter Procida seemingly their ballet master. Amongst all this there are some ravishing set pieces, more heart-stopping coup de théâtres than one director has a right to come up with, and a few misfires (the middle-aged revolutionaries’ moment at the ballet bar is utterly enigmatic and sloppily executed).
As the eternally mournful Duchess Hélène, Lianna Haroutounian (OA’s winning replacement last year for you know who), sings with creamy tone despite having to carry around a decomposing head for half the show. A magnificent Bryan Hymel knocks out some stunning top notes as Henri, the man who discovers himself to be the result of that rape in the Overture. A smoldering Erwin Schrott is the vengeful ballet master (with an oddball turn in a frock at the end) and Michael Volle is a potent Montfort. Antonio Pappano conducts with his usual flair for Verdi, his excellent orchestra rising to every challenge of this five-act French behemoth.