Major Operas | Les vêpres siciliennes by Giuseppe Verdi | High Romantic
Verdi inherited the libretto for Les vêpres siciliennes (‘The Sicilian Vespers’) from Le duc d’Albe (‘The Duke of Alba’), an opera left unfinished when its composer, Donizetti, died. Verdi made it a five-act work and it had its first performance at the Paris Opéra, for which it was commissioned, on 13 June 1855.
It was well received, but the Italian censors made difficulties, objecting to Naples as a setting for a massacre. The locale was changed to Sicily, then Portugal. The Italian title, I vespri siciliani, was replaced by Giovanna di Braganza, Giovanna de Guzman and Batilde di Turenna before its rightful name was reinstated in 1857.
The Duchesse Hélène laments the execution of her brother, encouraged by Robert, a French soldier, and stirs emotions amongst the crowd. A fight breaks out between the French and the Sicilians. The unpopular governor of Sicily, Guy de Montfort, tries to calm them and interrogates Henri, a Sicilian who wants to speak to Hélène. Suspecting him to be an anarchist, Montfort warns him against involvement with the duchess. Henri ignores his orders.
Jean Procida, a returning exile, reveals that there is little support for the Sicilian cause. Henri declares his love to Hélène; she asks him to avenge her brother’s death. Henri is arrested for declining a royal invitation. To annoy the Sicilians, Procida persuades French soldiers to abduct some local girls.
Guy de Montfort learns that Henri is his son. Neither of them is pleased. Procida tells Henri that they must put their plot to assassinate the governor into action. Wanting to protect his father, Henri prevents the assassination from going ahead. Hélène and Procida are arrested, while the Sicilian people revile Henri’s treachery.
Henri visits Hélène and Procida in prison and explains his reasons for defending Montfort. Hélène forgives Henri; he pledges to rejoin the conspirators now that he has saved his father’s life. The weapons for the uprising arrive. De Montfort promises to free Hélène and Procida if Henri publicly acknowledges him as his father; Henri agrees. Montfort blesses Henri’s marriage to Hélène, which he hopes will unite France with Sicily; Hélène feels uneasy.
The marriage celebrations are underway. Procida informs a horrified Hélène that the wedding bells will be the signal for the uprising to begin. Montfort, sensing that something is wrong, rings the bells to start the ceremony. At this signal, the armed Sicilians burst in on the unsuspecting French.
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