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A guide to Les vêpres siciliennes

7 January 2020
A young woman is dressed in a wedding gown, with the silhouette of a cathedral in the background.

A rarely performed opera by Verdi, the final part of Welsh National Opera’s recent Trilogy, Les vêpres siciliennes was written in 1854/5 in his middle-period, after the ever-popular trio of Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. An opera in five acts, it originally included a half hour ballet, a traditional aspect of Parisian grand opera. It was written in French, for the Paris Opéra in the grand opéra style.

Our production features National Dance Company Wales, a fellow Wales Millennium Centre resident company, whose dancers appear throughout the opera, in an echo of the ballet component of grand opéra. The three huge, interlocking frames that have featured in the sets of La forza del destinoand Un ballo in maschera – the Verdi Machine – are empty in this, the third production. It is all about the images seen through the frames, the ‘tableau vivant’ (aka living pictures). As designer Raimund Bauer explains: ‘we really change the Verdi Machine for each opera. The skeleton is the same and the structure is similar but the look changes for each opera. … the space is always defined by the Verdi Machine. There is always direction and a dynamic structure, so the machine is moving all the time.’ [behindthearras.com]

Based on an existing libretto by Eugène Scribe (with Charles Duveyrier), Le duc d’Albe, which both Halévy and Donizetti had originally turned down, the libretto was somewhat revised for Verdi, but nonetheless fails to be an historical account of the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. An uprising to push the French out of Sicily that culminated in a massacre upon the ringing of the church bells, the vespers of the title. Although certain factual names do appear in the opera, they do so in name only, not in character – Scribe had basically turned his Dutch into Sicilians and Spaniards into French.

Jean Procida, as leader of the rebellious Sicilians, for example, was a key historical figure who also plays an important role in the opera; although he is somewhat more bloodthirsty on stage than in reality. He is the instigator in the uprising, strategizing with the Duchesse Hélène and Henri, a young Sicilian patriot, in the fight for Sicilian independence. It is Procida (with Hélène) who plans the murder of the commander of the occupying French forces.

Within the opera’s storyline, reflecting the tension between the two nations, is the conflict between father and son. Henri, who is in love with Hélène, has been brought up to despise the French Governor, Guy de Montfort. Yet in act three, Montfort reveals to Henri that he is his father, instigating another battle, this time between politics and family loyalties. Henri must decide whether to warn his new-found father of the plot against him or to allow the murder to go ahead and the revolution to begin.

The act three duet between Henri and Montfort, ‘Quand ma bonté toujours nouvelle’, is probably one of the most recognisable pieces of music in Les vêpres siciliennes. It features one of the opera’s loveliest melodies – also included within the overture – yet it is the revelation of Montfort’s being Henri’s father, through the rape of Henri’s mother.

All five duets in the opera feature Henri and are considered to be among the finest Verdi wrote. Berlioz is reputedly to have found ‘a grandeur, a sovereign mastery more marked than in the composer’s previous creations’ in Les vêpres siciliennes. In fact the music, with its dramatic energy and depictions of character, as well as vibrant choruses and stunning arias, makes this uncommon opera one to watch.