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Les vêpres siciliennes / The Sicilian Vespers

Giuseppe Verdi 1813-1901

Opera in five acts
Libretto by Eugène Scribe & Charles Duveyrier after the libretto for Le Duc d‘Albe (1839)
First performed June 13 1855, Opéra, Salle de la rue Le Peletier, Paris
(premiere of this production: June 16 2013)

Sung in French with German surtitles
ca. 3 hours, including 1 interval
an introductory talk, in German, begins in the upstairs foyer 30 minutes before every performance  

In parallel with the bloody end of the Sicilian rebellion against the brutal foreign rule of the House of Anjou, triggered off when the occupying forces dishonoured native women on Easter Monday 1282, Verdi tells a story about a classical Oedipus father son conflict between the French govenor Montfort and his illegitimate son Henri, a young Sicilian, Henri's relationship with Hélène, the sister of Austria's Duke Friedrich, who was humiliated by the French and whose brother is murdered by the invaders at the beginning of the work. Director Jens Daniel Herzog set this timeless material in the 1960s, in a time of protest and the onset of terrorism.

Act I French occupying forces drink to their homeland in Palermo's marketplace. They force Hélène, whose brother was murdered by the French, to sing for them. Her song is a disguised incitement to her countrymen to rebel against the foreign rule. Her message is understood. Only the arrival of Montfort, the Governor, prevents them from attacking immediately. A young Sicilian, Henri, almost comes to blows with Montfort. He is not punished, but is forbidden from seeing Hélène again. Act II Procida returns to Sicily after years in exile. He, with Hélène and Henri's help, will stop at nothing in inciting his countrymen to rise against the occupiers. Henri and Hélène confess their love for one another. Henri is arrested when he refuses to attend a party being held by the Governor. Procida, trying to goad the Sicilians further, encourages French soldiers to behave disgracefully to some Sicilian women. Procida plans to mingle among the guests at Montfort's party and murder the Governor. Act III Montefort receives a letter from a women he dishonoured and abandoned years ago, imploring him to take care of their son, Henri. Montfort now greets Henri, who is horrified by the news, with open arms. He feels torn between his father and the people conspiring against him. Sc. 2 Hélène, Procida and Henri meet at the party. Henri fails in trying to persuade Procida to call off the assassination attempt or Montfort to leave the festivities. Hélène grabs her chance: she runs at Montfort with a knife. Henri throws himself between them. The captured conspirators look at him with hatred. Act IV Henri is allowed to visit Hélène in prison. His betrayal disgusts her. Henri explains that he had to intervene because Montfort is his father. He sides with the conspirators again and tells Hélèn that he will die at her side. Both reaffirm their love. Procida, awaiting execution, cannot forgive him. Montfort promises Henri that he will pardon his friends if he addresses him as »mon père«. Henri calls out the words as Hélène is being led to her death. Montfort pardons both prisoners and orders that preparations be made for Hélène and Henri's wedding, that very day, at vespers. Act V Hélène finds out that Procida has arranged that the sound of the wedding bells shall be the signal for the uprising to begin. She immediately calls the wedding off. Henri, hurt, goes to his father, who commands that the wedding shall take place, the bells ring out, the massacre begins.