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Les Vêpres siciliennes: Verdi's first grand opera

A look at the opera as part of a distinguished operatic tradition.

By Christopher Wintle (Opera scholar)

15 October 2013 at 4.05pm | 5 Comments

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 StiffelioRigoletto 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 12 October – 4 November 2017. It is a co-production with The Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen

This article has 5 comments

  1. I played this work in the orchestra at the Met Opera numerous times, and loved it more with each successive performance. The opera contains some of Verdi's most sublime music and, I believe, is highly underrated.

  2. I very much enjoyed the performance tonight, and indeed it has been a historic day for the Royal Opera. Since I would not want to spoil the fun for those who are going to see the production in the future, I will only say that there were many surprising scenes and challenging moments for the audience, that is, right from the beginning. But this production has deepened my understanding of the opera personally and I think it has opened up further possibilities for interpreting the opera in various ways.

  3. A. den Buyser responded on 19 October 2013 at 11:50am Reply

    PREMIERE NIGHT 'les Vepres Siciliennes' 17oct '13
    Thank you ROH: for bringing this grand opera to the UK;
    Thank you to DIRECTOR Mr. Stefan Herheim: your ideas and vision for this opera made it a new breathtaking experience:
    Thank you to CHOREOGRAPHER Mr André de Jong: because of your vision and professional guidance, the ballet and choir moves were wonderful integrated in this unknown masterpiece of Guiseppe Verdi.

  4. peter damato responded on 1 December 2013 at 6:40pm Reply

    I am very excited to see this opera at my local movie theatre on 12/7/13 here in the states thanks to ROH.
    I have cherished a recording of "Vespri" with Domingo and Martina Arroyo for years and will finally get to see a staged production. This is very exciting and is why the ROH and Met Live in HD events are so important to opera lovers all over the world.

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 1 December 2013 at 9:02pm

      Great to hear that Peter, hope that you really enjoy the performance.


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