Opera Essentials: Les Vêpres siciliennes
A quick guide to Verdi's first grand opera.
There is no such thing as reality. There is only perception.”
- Gustave Flaubert
The Story Begins…
The patriots Hélène and Henri are intent on freeing Sicily from French rule. But the French governor Montfort has some startling news for Henri. Where will Henri’s loyalties now lie, and if he renounces Sicily’s cause will the rebel Jean Procida ever forgive him?
Stefan Herheim’s production takes place in a stylized version of the very opera house for which Les Vêpres siciliennes was written. Its plot, based around the political and emotional struggle between the French and the Sicilians, is told on one level, but the production also translates the story into an existential struggle between artists and the people who want to use and abuse art – making art itself the country over which they are fighting.
A Paris Commission
Verdi wrote Les Vêpres siciliennes for the Paris Opéra. His librettist was Eugène Scribe, the leading librettist for French grand opera at the time. Les Vêpres siciliennes had its premiere on 13 June 1855 and was very well received. However, it failed to gain a place in the Opéra’s repertory, due in part to a gradual lessening of interest in grand opera. This is the first time the work has been performed at the Royal Opera House.
A Grand Score for a Grand Opera
Les Vêpres siciliennes is constructed on a massive scale, with a richly varied and dramatic score. Highlights include dances, fiery choruses for the opposing French and Sicilian forces, large-scale duets (including a major scene for Henri and Montfort in Act III, and another for Henri and Hélène in Act IV) and several atmospheric arias, including Montfort’s Act III monologue and Hélène’s virtuosic boléro (‘Merci, jeunes amis’) in Act V.
Fathers and Sons
Verdi is well known for his psychologically probing portrayals of the father-daughter relationship, but the father-son bond also fascinated him. Scribe’s libretto (adapted from an earlier one written for Donizetti, Le Duc d’Albe) and Verdi’s music powerfully explore the tormented relationship between Henri and Montfort.
Les Vêpres siciliennes runs until 11 November. Tickets are still available. It will be screened live in cinemas around the world on 4 November as part of our Live Cinema Season 2013/14. Find a cinema near you.
The production is generously supported by Mrs Susan A Olde OBE, Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Mr and Mrs Baha Bassatne and The Maestro’s Circle. It is a co-production with The Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen.