Les Vêpres siciliennes: Verdi's first grand opera
A look at the opera as part of a distinguished operatic tradition.
Writing in the programme book, opera scholar Christopher Wintle examines Les Vêpres siciliennes’s sumptuous score, and discusses Verdi’s treatment of the conventions of French grand opera.
In 1852–3, Giuseppe Verdi collaborated with Eugène Scribe on his first bespoke work for the Paris Opéra, an opera he conceived in five acts with the traditional ballet. Verdi welcomed the partnership with the enthusiasm of a young man making off with his father’s mistress for it was Scribe who had written librettos for the towering father-figure Meyerbeer; and it was Meyerbeer whom Verdi, like Wagner, had a lifelong ambition to emulate if not surpass.
So what did he do? First, for the public, political aspects of the piece Verdi exploited to the full the Opéra’s choral and instrumental forces – notably its agile wind and brass. He composed an elaborate formal overture that treated contrasting themes from the opera symphonically, something he had recently avoided.
For the choruses generally, Verdi followed Gluck’s recommendation of 1770 that rival forces should have distinctive music. At the end of Act II, the Sicilians dance a tarantella, during which the French soldiers abscond with the Sicilian women (reminiscent of the Rape of the Sabines – the opera’s key image). Not only does Verdi float distinct music for the rival forces over the whirling dance, but draws it to a spectacular climax: after a stunned silence, the Sicilians give voice to their shame in the anapaest (rat-a-tat) rhythms that conventionally signify mortal threat but in Les Vêpres also stand for profound shock. After another climax, a delicate barcarolle is heard from across the waters: the French are ferrying Sicilian women to Montfort’s ball. As this song unfolds, the Sicilians resume their menacing rhythms, ready – like Etna – to erupt. Whereas in Act III of Les Huguenots Meyerbeer had likewise combined the music of celebration and dissidence, Verdi is more effective in isolating and sustaining the sounds of rival factions.
Yet the opera’s building-blocks are structural units, not choruses. These Verdi described (disparagingly) as the typical progression of aria, duet and finale so evident in Acts II, III and IV; and still latent in Acts I and V. Certainly, they include familiar things: the triumphalist drinking song (as in La traviata); the dramatically pertinent stage song (for Hélène, as in Raimbaut’s first-act ballad in Robert le diable); the controlling presence of (for Hélène) a dead brother, and, even more importantly (for Henri) a dead mother – as in Stiffelio, Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra; and the violent disruption of ceremony and festivity (as in the last two acts of Le Prophète). Yet the arias, duets and small ensembles contain the work’s best music, with, for Verdi, newly flexible and focussed lines, French aria-types (mixed-mode couplets), and a readiness to push back rapid Italianate exit music (cabaletta) with scenes that close with dramatic recitative (scena).
But what of the ensembles? Only twice do the protagonists join forces, though with remarkable effect. In Act IV, Procida launches a lament for his unliberated Sicily after Montfort has openly revealed that Henri is his child; Montfort joins in by relishing his lethal power; the newly defiant Henri lines up with Procida; and Hélène bids farewell to Sicily in an ethereal melody. It is an intimate quartet that replicates the conflicts polarized in the big choruses; it also a worthy match for the sublime Act III quartet from Rigoletto.
The full article by Christopher Wintle is in the programme book that accompanies Les Vêpres siciliennes. It is available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop.
Les Vêpres siciliennes runs from 17 October – 11 November 2013. The production will also be screened live in cinemas around the world on 4 November and is staged with the generous philanthropic support of Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Mr and Mrs Baha Bassatne and The Maestro’s Circle.