Les Vêpres Siciliennes is one of Verdi’s misunderstood operas. In a clumsy translation, the work is usually presented to audiences today as I vespri Siciliani and, as such, gives a false representation of Verdi’s original concept. This opera was composed for the Paris Opera to a libretto by Eugene Scribe, one of the greatest poets of the day, and Charles Duveyrier. Verdi embraces the French idiom – the musical forms, the orchestration, the vocal writing – with the same grandeur and sense of occasion as Rossini and Meyerbeer before him. This is Opera Rara’s third of five sets in its Verdi Originals series and this BBC recording of the opera finally restores the original French libretto.
Booklet includes complete libretto with translations in English, Italian and German.
'The quality of this performance is so consistently excellent' - Denise Gallo, Opera Today
The opera is set in 1282 in and around Palermo. The French have occupied Sicily, which is governed by Guy de Montfort, under Charles d’Anjou.
French soldiers are revelling in their power over the Sicilians (‘Beau pays de France’), who curse the occupying force. Robert, a French soldier the worse for drink, relishes the prospect of claiming a Sicilian woman or two. Hélène arrives with her attendants. Béthune explains to his fellow French officer Vaudemont that Hélène is a hostage of the governor, Montfort, and has come to pray for her brother, Duke Frédéric of Austria, who was killed by the French a year ago to the day. Hélène offers her prayers then swears vengeance for her brother’s murder. Robert staggers over to her and asks her to sing; she obliges, but the final section of her song (‘Courage! …du courage!’) is a patriotic rallying-cry to the Sicilians; they throw themselves on the French.
Montfort appears, stops the riot and disperses the crowd. Hélène, her maid Ninetta and Montfort express their reactions to the violent episode (‘Quelle horreur m’environne’). Henri, a young Sicilian, rushes in and, not noticing Montfort, tells Hélène that he has been released from prison by the governor and now wants to confront him. Montfort steps forward, identifies himself, and sends the women away. He questions Henri about his parents; Henri will not speak of his father and expresses his loyalty to Frédéric. Admiring his pride and courage, Montfort offers him a commission in the French army and warns him to keep away from Hélène. Henri dismisses the commission and the warning. Both men affirm their uncompromising stands (‘Téméraire! téméraire!’). With emotion, Montfort watches Henri depart before, then goes into his palace.
Procida, a Sicilian doctor, disembarks from his boat and pours out his feelings at being back near his native city (‘Et toi, Palerme’). Having suffered at the hands of the French, who confiscated all his land and possessions, he has been abroad rallying support for his revolutionary plot to overthrow the occupying force. His supporters arrive and pledge their allegiance to him (‘Dans l’ombre et le silence’). Henri and Hélène appear. Procida tells them that he has negotiated aid for his patriotic cause from the Spanish, but they will support it only if there is a Sicilian uprising. Procida and his men go off.
Henri declares his love for Hélène (‘Comment, dans ma reconnaissance’); she says she will return it on condition that he avenges Frédéric’s death (‘Près de tombeau peut-être’). Béthune arrives and summons Henri to Montfort’s ball, to be held that night at his palace. When Henri refuses to attend, he is arrested and taken away. Hélène explains to Procida what has happened to Henri.
Crowds of Sicilians assemble for a festival; among them are 12 betrothed couples. They dance a tarantella but stop when a group of French soldiers, led by Thibault and Robert, arrives. The Frenchmen signal the Sicilians to continue. Seeing this as an opportunity to provoke the Sicilians into the rebellion he needs, Procida encourages the French to take advantage of the local women. The dancing becomes more frenzied and the French soldiers abduct the prospective brides at knifepoint. The Sicilians express their increasing outrage (‘Interdits, accablés’).
Voices are heard in the distance. The Sicilians see a boat offshore, taking French officers and Sicilian women, in their finery, to the governor’s ball (‘O bonheur! ô délice’). Procida and his compatriots swear vengeance on the French and vow to assassinate Montfort that night.
Montfort, alone, is musing on his past: 18 years earlier he abducted a woman, now dead, who brought up their son to hate his father. He takes a letter from his pocket and reads. That son is Henri, who is unaware of his father’s identity. Montfort summons Henri, then reflects on his own situation: he may be powerful but his life is empty without a relationship with his son. Henri arrives and confronts Montfort, who tries to reassure him of his good intentions (‘Quand ma bonté toujours nouvelle’). He gives Henri a letter that reveals he is Henri’s father. Shocked, Henri fears that when his identity is known, Hélène will abandon him. Montfort pleads with Henri to acknowledge him as his father but Henri reiterates his hatred for Montfort and his contempt at the way Montfort treated Henri’s mother. Montfort vainly tries to cling on to Henri but he resists the embrace and leaves.
Montfort takes his place on a platform overlooking the assembled guests — French men and Sicilian women, some of whom are masked. There follows a divertissement, ‘Les Quatre Saisons’, during which Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn dance with naiads, fauns and zephyrs. The entertainment is drawn to a close with a dance to Bacchus. The guests express their appreciation and disperse.
Procida and Hélène appear and warn Henri of the plot to assassinate Montfort that night. Dance music and festive singing (‘O fête brillante’) can be heard from the garden. Procida explains that his fellow conspirators are mingling with the guests, in disguise, and are wearing a distinctive ribbon; he pins one on Henri’s chest. Suddenly Montfort himself arrives. Procida and Hélène melt into the crowd. Henri warns Montfort that he is in imminent danger but he will still not pledge loyalty to his father.
Suddenly Hélène rushes forward to stab Montfort. Henri puts himself between Hélène and Montfort and prepares to be struck. Horrified, Hélène drops her dagger. The conspirators are seized and sentenced to death. The Sicilians reaffirm their patriotism (‘Coup terrible’); Henri ponders his betrayal of the Sicilian cause; Montfort and the French thank God for their escape. Henri approaches Hélène, who angrily repels him. She and Procida denounce him as a traitor. Henri staggers and falls into Montfort’s arms.
Henri arrives with a pass allowing him to visit the condemned prisoners. He reflects mournfully on his position (‘O jour de peine’). Hélène is brought in. She is shocked to see him (‘De courroux et d’effroi’). He pleads for her pity, protesting that he is blameless, but she reiterates her accusations of treachery. He finally reveals the identity of his father. Hélène, now understanding Henri’s divided loyalties, forgives him but accepts that they cannot now hope to be together. They affirm their love (‘Pour moi rayonne’).
Procida approaches and quietly shows Hélène a message saying that Spanish forces have arrived in Sicily to help the revolutionaries. Montfort appears and orders the prisoners’ immediate execution. Henri tries to intervene, and Procida now learns the truth about Montfort and Henri’s relationship. All four express their conflicting emotions (‘Adieu, mon pays’). Montfort finally offers to spare Procida and Hélène on condition that Henri addresses him as ‘Father’. Henri resists. A ‘De profundis’ is heard as the Sicilians in the courtyard pray for the condemned. Seeing Hélène approach the scaffold, Henri breaks down, falls at Montfort’s feet, and gives in. Montfort acknowledges the depth of his son’s love for Hélène and orders that they be married, a move that will also strengthen accord between the Sicilians and the French. Procida reasserts his desire for patriotic vengeance; Montfort takes the hands of Henri and Hélène and leaves with one on either side of him.
Young women prepare for the coming wedding festivities (‘Célébrons ensemble’); Hélène thanks them and looks forward to a happier future for Sicily (‘Merci, jeunes amies’); Henri praises the evening breezes (‘La brise soufflé au loin’) and revels in his love.
Procida arrives to say that everything is ready for the planned uprising, which will be launched at the sound of the wedding bells. Procida castigates Hélène for appeasing the French through her marriage to Henri. Hélène tells Henri of the imminent revolution and begs him to leave. She is tormented by the fact that through her marriage she will betray her dead brother. Henri, Hélène and Procida express their respective passionate feelings (‘Trahison! imposture!’).
Montfort and his courtiers appear. Hélène does not reveal the patriots’ plot but tries to delay the conclusion of the wedding ceremony. Montfort, however, orders the bells to be rung. The Sicilians rush in and attack the French. Procida orders that no-one should be spared.