Monday, April 01, 2013

Stop press! Motorcycles to take over Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House's new production of I vespri siciliani, a grand celebration of Verdi's bicentenary involving both the opera and ballet companies, has been widely tipped to be the event of the season. And so it will be - but not quite as expected.

Everyone has been so busy speculating about the choice of the French language version and the strength of the mooted dance element - to say nothing of the cost - that until now we completely failed to notice one vital fact about the production.

This is in fact not Giuseppe Verdi's opera The Sicilian Vespers, but a work by Guillaume Verdi, an all-but-unknown French composer deemed to be the descendent of, allegedly, an illegitimate relative of the great Italian father of grand opera. Its title is The Sicilian Vespas.

It's to be a treat for opera and ballet lovers alike: a newly discovered European equivalent, perhaps, to West Side Story. Two rival motorcycle gangs in Palermo clash over their Mafia heritage; the star-crossed lovers, Paulo and Giulia, mirror the tragic progress of their Shakespearean models. The stage of the Royal Opera House is to host a specially constructed "volcano" on which the bikes will race in a spectacle unlike anything these august spaces have seen before.

I tracked down Guillaume Verdi's daughter to her remote hillside home in Provence. Valerie Verdi, a woman of few words, with dark eyes that speak more than her voice, expressed simple gratitude that her father's work is at last to receive the attention it deserves.

"It's a beautiful, dynamic creation," she suggested, "but was long suppressed in an atmosphere of contemporary music that was hostile to any style but the atonal avant-garde. And in terms of stage drama, Leonard Bernstein dominated the same territory my father chose, with West Side Story, and who knows if he had a vested interest in suppressing any potential rival? Who knows the truth?" She gave a shrug and a smile that betrayed a long-held and infinite sorrow.

I asked her to tell JDCMB readers more about her father's relationship to Giuseppe Verdi. "It's difficult to prove," she said. "Given the circumstances of my father's birth, documentation is limited. But there really was an extraordinary resemblance between them. When I look at photographs of Verdi and his beard, I see my father's face."

Will she come to London for the show? "Yes, perhaps," she said, "if I can find someone to feed my goats in my absence."

Speculation is rife that Sergei Polunin will return from Moscow's Stanislavsky Ballet to dance the ballet-double of Paulo, with tiger-scratch tattoo fully exposed. Leading ballerinas are said to be vying for the chance to play Giulia. As for the singers, the house has apparently put in a call to a German tenor who happens to look rather good in leather.