Opera in five acts on a libretto by Eugène Scribe
and Charles Duveyrer
translated into Italian by Arnaldo Fusinato.Première:
Paris, Opéra, June 13th 1855.
Act I. Palermo, 1282. Piazza Grande. The duchess Elena is in mourning for her brother Federigo d'Austria who has been killed as a traitor. A French soldier, Roberto, obliges her to sing. With her song, she enflames the hearts of the Sicilians and a fight begins with the French. The French governor Guido di Monforte intervenes and establishes calm. Then he interrogates a young Sicilian, Arrigo, who had been talking with the widow, and forbids further contacts with the woman, suspected of being a revolutionary. But Arrigo manages to meet her anyway.
Act II. In a valley near Palermo Giovanni da Procida, who had been exiled but has returned clandestinely, Elena and Arrigo meet. Giovanni announces that Pietro d'Aragona plans to intervene in Sicily if an insurrection starts. Arrigo declares his love to Elena: she will accept him and reciprocate if he will revenge her brother.
Act III. Monforte, in his study, learns from a letter from a woman he had seduced, that Arrigo is his son. He summons the young man and tells him: Arrigo is perturbed, sensing that he will lose Elena. That evening there is a masked ball. Giovanni da Procida tells Arrigo that plans are ready to kill Guido di Monforte; Arrigo defends his father and the conspirators are arrested.
Act IV. Giovanni da Procida and Elena have been taken prisoner to the fortress. Arrigo goes to them and justifies his actions: he had to pay his filial debt, but now he is once again with them in their battle. Elena confirms her love for him, and Giovanni reveals that the arms for the insurrection are being sent. Monforte, in the meantime, devises a way to blackmail Arrigo: either he publicly recognises Monforte as his father or the prisoners will be killed. Arrigo gives in, the prisoners are freed, and the governor announces an amnesty for the marriage of his son with Elena. She is unsure at this point whether to accept, but Giovanni da Procida urges her to go along with it: it will serve to buy time.
Act V. In the gardens of the palace the wedding feast is starting. Elena is singing, When Giovanni da Procida tells her that at the peal of the bells the attack will be launched. The woman draws back, afraid; Arrigo is dismayed. Guido da Monforte cannot understand what is happening, he sees only that the wedding is in danger. To start the ceremonies, he has the bells rung. The opera ends with the invasion of the gardens by the rebels, the start of the insurrection.
At the beginning of 1852, Verdi signed a contract for a work with the Paris Opéra. The conditions were more than favourable: the offer of collaboration with the famous French poet and librettist Eugène Scribe, the singers would be selected by the Maestro, three months of rehearsals were planned before opening to the public, at least forty performances would be given in less than a year, and last but not least, the mise-en-scène would receive all the resources the action might require.
Scribe proposed to Verdi a subject he had already sent to Gaetano Donizetti for Le duc d'Albe, a grand opéra in keeping with French theatrical tradition that had never been finished. Verdi could modify the libretto in the parts that he did not like, and Verdi agreed, until he found out that the opera had just been completed by Matteo Salvi and presented in Rome. Verdi had been deceived by the librettist and protested against Scribe, but the damage had already been done. Another regrettable occurrence that prompted Verdi to ask for an annulment of the contract, naturally not conceded, was the refusal of the primadonna Sofia Cruvelli to sing in the opera. But despite all these setbacks, the opera opened on June 13th, 1855, one of the events for the Grand Exposition in Paris that year.
Translated in Italian by Arnaldo Fusinato, Les Vêpres siciliennes was staged in many Italian theatres, with titles modified by the censors: for the 1856 season at the Teatro Ducale in Parma and the Scala in Milan, it became Giovanna di Guzman; in Naples in 1858, it was called Batilde di Turenna. Finally in 1860, with the advent of the unity of Italy, Ricordi was able to publish the libretto with its original name, I Vespri siciliani.