Les vêpres siciliennes

Les vêpres siciliennes
Grand opera by Giuseppe Verdi
Vespri Siciliani-by Roberto Focosi.jpg
A scene from the Italian version of the opera
(Lithograph by Roberto Focosi)
Librettist Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier
Language French
Based on Original 1838 libretto for Donizetti's Le duc d'Albe
Premiere 13 June 1855 (1855-06-13);
Paris Opéra

Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers) is a grand opera in five acts by the Italian romantic composer Giuseppe Verdi set to a French libretto by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier from their work Le duc d'Albe, which was written in 1838. Les vêpres followed immediately after Verdi's three great mid-career masterpieces, Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata of 1850 to 1853 and was first performed at the Paris Opéra on 13 June 1855.

Today it is better-known in its post-1861 Italian version as I vespri siciliani and it is occasionally performed. The story is based on a historical event, the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, using material drawn from the medieval Sicilian tract Lu rebellamentu di Sichilia. [1]

Composition history

Eugène Scribe

After Verdi's first grand opera for the Paris Opéra—that being his adaptation of I Lombardi in 1847 given under the title of Jérusalem - the composer had wanted to write a completely new grand opera for the company, the appeal being the same as that which influenced all Italian composers of the day: the challenges of a form different from that of their homeland and the ability to appeal to an audience which welcomed novelty. [2]

Verdi began discussions with the Opéra but negotiations were stalled by the 1848 revolutions and the composer broke them off for a period of time. It was not until February 1852 (while Il trovatore was still being prepared) that he returned to Paris and entered into a contract to write an opera, the libretto to be prepared by Scribe, who was given a deadline for a "treatment" to be delivered on 30 June 1853 [2] with rehearsals to begin in mid-1854 and the opera staged in November/December of that year. Verdi was guaranteed the choice of suitable artists as well as forty performances in the ten months following the premiere. [2]

In July 1852, Verdi had written to Scribe outlining his hopes:

I should like, I need a subject that is grandiose, impassioned and original; a mise-en-scene that is imposing and overwhelming. I have consistently in view so many of those magnificent scene to be found in your poems ... Indeed, these scenes are miracles! But you work them so often that I hope you will work one for me. [3]

When Scribe missed his July 1853 deadline, Verdi went to Paris to negotiate directly and it was then that the librettist proposed a solution, using a revised version of the libretto for Le duc d'Albe, [4] one which had been written about 20 years before at the height of the French grand opera tradition and which had previously been offered to Halevy (who refused it) and to Donizetti (who partly set it to music in 1839 under the original title). [5] Verdi raised many objections, many of these being outlined in a letter from Scribe to Duveyrier of December 1853. [6] They included a change of location, of characters' names, certain specific situations (there being no beer halls in Sicily, for example), plus a demand for a "standard" fifth act to make it equivalent to Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots or Le Prophète

However, this "meant that Verdi was writing his first (original) opéra at a point at which the genre was in a state of flux". [5] Musicologist Julian Budden adds: "In opting for the grandest possible scale, Verdi was running against the current of fashion" (which he notes had significantly shifted in the months and years following the 1848 uprising, so that the country was now firmly in the epoch of Napoleon III, meaning "that the social foundation on which [grand opera] rested was now withdrawn") [7]

Verdi spent 1854 forcing Scribe to make revisions while writing the music, "complaining about the sheer length demanded by audiences at the Opéra". [4] Overall, it was a frustrating time for the composer, especially in dealing with Scribe's 5th act. The librettist was unresponsive to Verdi's pleas for revisions, until finally, he was forced in late 1854 (with no premiere in sight and the mysterious disappearance from rehearsals of Sophie Cruvelli, who sang Hélène) to write to the Opera's director, Louis Crosnier: "To avoid the catastrophe that menaces us ... I see but one means and I do not hesitate to propose it: dissolution of the contract". [8] However, Verdi persevered and was present at the June 1855 premiere, by then having spent close to two years in Paris working on the opera.

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