Verdi’s The Sicilian Vespers was written to a French text by Eugene Scribe – Les vêpres siciliennes. It first appeared at the Paris Opera in 1855. Its French iteration was unsuccessful and it disappeared from France, and most of the rest of the operatic world, until fairly recently. In its Italian form is was more successful, though not anywhere close to the successes of its siblings written during Verdi’s middle period. It didn’t make it to the Met until 1967. In total, the company has performed the opera only 45 times. This relative lack of attention for a mature work by Verdi is the rule throughout the operatic world. Why the opera is neglected is mysterious as it is a masterpiece with great roles for soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass. One might blame the opera’s five act format, but the Met is doing Don Carlos in the original five act French version this season. So the reason the score is mostly on the shelf lies elsewhere.
Berlioz, the king of music critics fully appreciated the opera’s worth. His review of the prima included this statement: “In Les vêpres the penetrating intensity of the melodic expressiveness, the sumptuous, wise variety of the instrumentation, the vastness and poetic sonority of the concerted pieces, the hot colour that shines throughout … communicate to this opera an imprint of grandeur, a species of sovereign majesty more distinguishable than in this composer’s earlier product.” That’s saying a lot as Vespers immediate predecessor was La Traviata. And the audience disagreed.
The story was a strange one to engage the hearts of French audiences; it depicts the massacre of the French occupiers of Sicily in 1282. That might explain why the opera failed in Paris, but not the rest of the world. Without first rate singers and a conductor who understands Verdi, the opera will not make its way; but when properly cast it is a powerful work.
The excerpt presented here is from a 1990 La Scala production under the baton of Riccardo Muti. Act 3 ends with the reaction of all the principals’ to Arrigo’s prevention of Montfort’s assassination by his lover and fellow conspirator, Elena. They are shocked at what they see as treachery on his part. The reason for his action is that he discovered in the previous act that Montfort, the French governor, is his father. Arrigo is torn between parental obligation and patriotism. The Sicilians are oblivious to this paternity and hurl obloquy at him This is one of the grandest concertatos Verdi ever wrote. It begins with a series of vocal exclamation points succeeded by a cantabile. Budden writes That,”there is no attempt to distinguish musically the different attitudes of those present. Whether appealing to [Arrigo’s] family feelings, cursing him for his treachery, or simply deploring their country’s fate all contribute to the monolithic grandeur of the line.” I Vespri Siciliani Act 3 finale