Opera Scotland

Vêpres siciliennes Les Vêpres siciliennes; The Sicilian Vespers; I vespri siciliani

Music

Giuseppe Verdi (born Busseto, 19 October 1813; died Milan, 27 January 1901)

Text

Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier.

Source

Libretto Le Duc d'Albe (1838) also by Scribe.

 

Premieres

First Performance: Paris (Opéra), 13 June 1855.

First Performance in UK:  London (Drury Lane), 27 July 1859.

First Performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 25 April 1955.

Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.

 

Background

The Sicilian Vespers has had comparatively little exposure in spite of its early reception, which was generally favourable. It was an attempt to create a grand opera in the established style of Meyerbeer - a historical drama in five acts complete with ballet. It is therefore very different from its three immediate predecessors - Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. That simple reason may have been enough to condemn it in the eyes of some authorities. There is also the fact that the libretto was perhaps below the standard usually set by Scribe. He started with an earlier work, written originally for Halévy before being offered to Donizetti. For Verdi it was relocated from the Netherlands to Sicily. Converting the French into  the occupying force, and killing them at the end, seems a curious way of attempting to win over a Parisian audience. For performance in Italy the subject matter had to be completely changed again. Until very recently, performances were based on the Italian text. While the names Guido di Monforte, Giovanni da Procida and Elena are little changed, the principal tenor role of Henri became known as Arrigo.

In Britain in recent years, apart from the Glasgow Grand production, mounted for the work's centenary, it has been performed in the fifties by WNO and later by ENO. A further long gap arose before the Royal Opera's staging of 2013.

 

Main Characters

Guy de Montfort, Governor of Sicily (baritone)

Henri, a young Sicilian (tenor)

Jean de Procida, a Sicilian doctor and patriot (bass)

Duchess Hélène, sister of Duke Frederick of Austria (soprano)

 

Plot Summary

The Sicilian Vespers as a historical event occurred in Palermo in 1282. However the events of this opera have little to do with history, though at least Procida was a genuine historical figure. At the outset, the French have been a much-resented occupying force in Sicily for twenty years. Opposition is led by the Duchess Hélène, whose brother has already been executed by the French. She is supported by Procida and Henri.

In the main square of Palermo, she and the Sicilians are taunted by a group of French soldiers, who demand that she sings to them. Her performance rouses the locals to a pitch of excitement that is only quelled by the arrival of Montfort. As the Sicilians disperse, Montfort tries, without success, to lure Henri from his support of the Duchess. Procida now appears, returning from a foreign mission in which he has tried, without support, to win support for the cause. Henri is arrested by the French while Procida tries once more to stir up a revolt.

Henri's arrest has been a ruse by Montfort to have a meeting with him in private, since he has discovered that Henri is his own illegitimate son. His overtures are brusquely rejected. However, later on, at a ball, after the guests have been entertained by an extensive ballet, the conspirators attempt to assassinate Monfort. At this point, Henri rescues his father, to the astonishment of his friends. They are dragged off to pridon, cursing him violently.

In her prison cell Henri explains his actions to Hélène and she forgives him. Montfort, at Henri's insistence, frees the prisoners. Henri will now acknowledge Montfort as his father, and the peace will be cemented by a marriage between Henri and the Duchess. As preparations for the marriage are finalised, Hélène is horrified at Procida's revelation that the ringing of wedding bells will signal the start of the uprising. Her efforts to halt the ceremony are vain, and as bells ring out in celebration, the French are slaughtered.

The Cast

Béthune
 a French officer
Danieli
 a young Sicilian, attendant on Hélène
Guy de Montfort
 (Guido) Governor of Sicily
Hélène
 sister of Duke Frederick of Austria
Henri
 (Arrígo) a young Sicilian
Jean de Procida
 (Giovanni) a Sicilian doctor
Manfredo
 a Sicilian peasant
Ninetta
 attendant on Hélène
Robert
 (Roberto) a French soldier
Thibault
 (Tebaldo) a French soldier
Vaudemont
 a French officer

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