Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers)
An opéra in five acts
French libretto by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier, from their work Le duc d'Albe,
based on the mediaeval Sicilian tract Cronica di lu rebellamentu di Sichilia contra re Carlu
Choreography by Lucien Petipa
Music by Giuseppe Verdi
First performed in the Théâtre de l'Académie Impériale de Musique (the Paris Opéra)
on 13 June 1855
Guy de Montfort, Governor of Sicily (baritone)
Le Sire de Béthune, a French officer (bass)
Le Comte de Vaudemont, a French officer (bass)
Henri, a young Sicilian (tenor)
Jean de Procida, a Sicilian doctor (bass)
La Duchesse Hélène, sister of Duke Frederick of Austria (soprano)
Ninette, her maid (contralto)
Daniéli, a Sicilian (tenor)
Thibault, a French soldier (tenor)
Robert, a French soldier (baritone)
Mainfroid, a Sicilian (tenor)
Place: Palermo, 1282
In Palermo's main square, Thibault, Robert and other French soldiers have gathered in front of the Governor's palace and are drinking a toast to their homeland, to the discomfort of the Sicilians present, discontented at the recent occupation of their island. Duchess Hélène comes by, dressed in mourning for her dead brother. On seeing her, Robert, who is tipsy, demands that she sing and, to everyone's surprise, she agrees. What Robert did not bargain for, though, is that her song should stir up rebellion amongst the Sicilians in the square, and they unite to give the French soldiers a sound thrashing. It takes the French Governor himself to restore order. Governor Guy de Montfort remains in the square while things settle down, and overhears a conversation between Hélène and her beloved, Henri - a Sicilian who, unbeknown to himself, is Montfort's own son. Montfort orders Hélène to be on her way and, once he is alone with the young Sicilian, he offers to take him into the service of the French. Affronted, Henri rejects the offer. Then it is the Governor's turn to become indignant, and he warns Henri to stay away from Hélène, but he takes no notice.
Jean de Procida has just returned home from talks with the Aragonese, whose Queen is a pretender to the Sicilian throne, and supports the Sicilian rebellion against the French. After stepping ashore he immediately meets with Hélène and Henri who, along with him, are the ringleaders of a conspiracy against the French, to plan an uprising during a forthcoming party to celebrate some young people's weddings. Henri tells Hélène of his love for her, and she promises to marry him if he will avenge her brother's death.
Thereupon Béthune, a French officer sent by Montfort, appears with an invitation for Henri to attend a grand ball in the Palace. When the young man spurns the invitation, Béthune arrests him. Powerless to help Henri, Procida continues to lead the Sicilians in revolt, but quietly, so as to get into the ball and avenge Henri.
Scene 1 - The French Governor is in his office rereading a letter he received years ago from his first wife, proud to have brought their son Henri up to hate his father. In comes Béthune announcing that Henri has been arrested. Montfort asks for Henri to be brought and left alone with him. The Governor confesses to Henri that he is his father. Henri's blood turns cold as he remembers the promise he made to Hélène.
Scene 2 - In a large function room in the Palace a ballet about the four seasons is being performed, while Procida lays his plans. He has set everything up so that the Sicilian patriots can get into the ball in disguise and assassinate Montfort. Henri, meanwhile, is on the horns of a dilemma: to his consternation, his chief enemy is his father. When the attempt on the Governor's life is about to be made, Henri places his own body in the way, earning his father's gratitude and the rejection of his fellow freedom-fighters, amongst them Hélène and Procida, who brand him as a traitor.
Hélène and Procida are languishing in the fortress prison. Henri comes to the fortress to see his beloved and when she rejects him, he admits to being Montfort's own kin. He explains that, having discharged his filial debt to salve his conscience, he is ready to rejoin the rebellion.
The Governor arrives to oversee the prisoners' execution, and is heedless of Henri's pleas to pardon them. Eventually, Montfort announces that he will suspend the death sentences if only Henri will publicly recognize him as his father. As Hélène is led to the gallows, Henri gives in on condition that, following the public recognition, he and Hélène will be married. Procida quashes Hélène's misgivings at the prospect of marrying Henri by telling her he is going ahead with plans for an uprising. A vessel laden with weaponry sent by the Aragonese is lying at anchor in the harbour.
Joyously, Henri and Hélène are making their wedding plans in Montfort's palace in Palermo. But Procida has plans of another kind. He tells Hélène that, as the wedding bells begin to ring, a group of armed Sicilians will move in and kill all the French persons present. By springing this surprise on Hélène, Procida sends her into a panic and she tries to call off the wedding - to the stupefaction of Henri, who had not been following these developments at all. But Montfort orders that the ceremony go on. As soon as the bell-ringing begins, a group of Sicilians with swords and daggers move in, and the wedding ends with bloodshed.
Marc Heilbron, ABAO-OLBE Season Book 2012-13