Stephan Herheim’s Covent Garden production opens with a man sitting in the left-hand corner of the stage reading a newspaper while the French invaders prepare for mass rape. He is visible once more at the opening of Act four. One of Herheim’s production team fills seven pages of the programme book, explaining the ‘concept’ behind this show, which is set inside the Paris Opéra where the opera had its 1855 premiere.
He does not mention the newspaper, but the metaphor is easily understood: nothing is real, all is a mirrored reflection of something else. We, the audience, are watching the audience who are watching the cast who are watching… and so on…. at the original production. That’s what concept opera does: it distances you from the work.
There is much in the show that is scenically brilliant – the shifting wall of mirrors, the execution block – and much that is infuriating and irrelevant.
A troupe of ballet girls served chiefly to tamp down whatever emotion might have been aroused. A child executioner is a blatant joke at our expense. At the climax, a massacre, the Norwegian director cuts to silence and blazes the stage lights at the audience. Get it?
Concept opera, like adolescence (and, perhaps, senescence) is a phase through which opera is passing. It may already be growing out of it. Herheim, sensationally fashionable in Germany, does not travel well.
The singing and acting were world class. Bryan Hymel as Henri could have done with a touch more volume and Erwin Schrott as the destructive revolutionary Procida hurled himself about too much to give vocally of his absolute best, but Michael Volle as the governor, De Montfort, was imposing in every sense and Lianna Haroutounian was sweet-toned and affecting as Hélène. It’s tough for singers when the director does not allow them to develop character and this cast performed splendidly under some adversity. The orchestra played as amply as we have come to expect when Antonio Pappano conducts and the chorus were in fine voice.
A larger chorus might have been even finer, but they’d spent the money on those trippy ballet dancers and saved on the musical essence.