24 Sep 2006

VERDI: I vespri siciliani

I vespri siciliani, grand opera in five acts. Italian edition of Les vépres siciliennes.

Music composed by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901). Libretto by Augustin Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier, based on their libretto Le duc d'Albe.

First Performance: Les vépres siciliennes, 13 June 1855, Opéra, Paris.

Principal Characters:
Guy de Montfort (Monforte), governor of Sicily Baritone
Le Sire de Béthune, French officer Bass
Le Comte de Vaudemont, French officer Bass
Henri (Arrigo), a young Sicilian Tenor
Jean Procida, a Sicilian doctor Bass
Le Duchesse Héléne (Elena), sister of duc Frédéric of Austria Soprano
Ninetta, her maid Contralto
Danieli, a Sicilian Tenor
Thibault (Tebaldo), a French soldier Tenor
Robert (Roberto), a French soldier Baritone
Mainfroid (Manfredo), a Sicilian Tenor

Time and Place: Palermo, Sicily, 1282.

Historical Background: The libretto upon which this opera is based, Le duc d'Albe by Scribe and Duveyrier, was originally written for Halévy, who never used it. It was taken up by Donizetti in 1839; however, he never completed the work. Verdi eventually chose it as a vehicle for a grand opera at the Paris Opéra, albeit insisting that Scribe make important revisions. The original libretto was set in 1573 during a Flemish insurrection against the Duke of Alba, the governor of Flanders. For Verdi, it was reset in Sicily at the onset of the War of the Sicilian Vespers (1282–1302), resulting in its retitling as Les vépres siciliennes.

Although Les vépres siciliennes has been criticized for removing the setting from 16th Century Flanders to 13th Century Sicily, the result is nonetheless valid. The French would have been more familiar with (and sympathetic to) this important event that laid the groundwork for the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. Charles I of Anjou, the younger brother of Louis IX of France, established control of northern and central Italy and of Sicily. Unhappy with heavy taxes and the relocation of the capital to Naples, the Sicilians revolted in 1282. The French garrison was annihilated. Knowing that they could not hold against Charles, the insurgents offered Sicily to Peter III of Aragon, which he took gladly. Charles' efforts to regain Sicily were repulsed. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Emperor allied with Aragon, thereby preventing a Latin attack upon Constantinople and diverting Papal attention away from the Crusade.

Ironically, the Kingdom of Sicily with its capital in Naples continued on, even though the island of Sicily was no longer within its control. In 1442, Alphonso V of Aragon conquered Naples and reunited the two kingdoms. The Kingdom of Two Sicilies remained in Spanish control more or less until Garibaldi's invasion in May 1860.


Act I.

Piazza Grande. The duchess Elena is in mourning for her brother Federigo d'Austria who has been executed as a traitor. A French soldier, Roberto, obliges her to sing. With her song, she enflames the hearts of the Sicilians and a fight begins with the French. The French governor Guido di Monforte intervenes and establishes calm. Then he interrogates a young Sicilian, Arrigo, who had been talking with the widow, and forbids further contacts with the woman, suspected of being a revolutionary. But Arrigo manages to meet her anyway.

Act II.

In a valley near Palermo Giovanni da Procida, who had been exiled but has returned clandestinely, Elena and Arrigo meet. Giovanni announces that Pietro d'Aragona plans to intervene in Sicily if an insurrection starts. Arrigo declares his love to Elena: she will accept him and reciprocate if he will revenge her brother.

Act III.

Monforte, in his study, learns from a letter from a woman he had seduced, that Arrigo is his son. He summons the young man and tells him: Arrigo is perturbed, sensing that he will lose Elena. That evening there is a masked ball. Giovanni da Procida tells Arrigo that plans are ready to kill Guido di Monforte; Arrigo defends his father and the conspirators are arrested.

Act IV.

Giovanni da Procida and Elena have been taken prisoner to the fortress. Arrigo goes to them and justifies his actions: he had to pay his filial debt, but now he is once again with them in their battle. Elena confirms her love for him, and Giovanni reveals that the arms for the insurrection are being sent. Monforte, in the meantime, devises a way to blackmail Arrigo: either he publicly recognises Monforte as his father or the prisoners will be executed. Arrigo gives in, the prisoners are freed, and the governor announces an amnesty for the marriage of his son with Elena. She is unsure at this point whether to accept, but Giovanni da Procida urges her to go along with it: it will serve to buy time.

Act V.

In the gardens of the palace the wedding feast is starting. Elena is singing, When Giovanni da Procida tells her that at the peal of the bells the attack will be launched. The woman draws back, afraid; Arrigo is dismayed. Guido da Monforte cannot understand what is happening, he sees only that the wedding is in danger. To start the ceremonies, he has the bells rung. The opera ends with the invasion of the gardens by the rebels, the start of the insurrection.

[Synopsis Source: Giuseppe Verdi—il sito ufficiale]

Click here for the complete libretto (Italian).