Giuseppe Verdi: I vespri siciliani (1855)

Opera in five acts. Running time: 3 hours (+30 minute ballet).


0: The overture ** is probably Verdi’s best or near best.

ACT 1: The Main Square of Palermo.

18: The act opens with a rather standard chorus going on a descending scale which is fine but the first item worth mentioning is Elena’s subtle call to arms *, which, although not particularly memorable at all, is a good introduction to her character.

23: A subdued a cappella quartet for Elena, her two servants, and the French governor Monforte **. It is good, but I’m not as in love with it as Forman was.

28, 30: The rest of the act is made up of a duet between Monforte and Arrigo which has two items worth mentioning: One is its opening cello-based tune and the second is Arrigo’s catchy arioso in the middle of the duet. Both are ** items, and the act ends with a rather ordinary series of sedate battery chords.

ACT 2: The sea shore near Palermo.

3: Procida’s song to Palermo is okay and has a singular tune  that can stick in the head, but it really is only worth *. It is followed by two passages of rather dull conspiratorial workings.

13: The Arrigo-Elena duet ** the true climax of the act. Arrigo tells Elena he loves her, she tells him that if he avenges her brother (executed by Monfort).

29: What follows is one of the most disturbing but not stupid scenes in all opera. An oddly serious tarantella gets struck up and French officers carry off Sicilian women. Literally the entire female cast except for Elena is raped by French officers. Let me just say, this is f-ing terrifying! More sotto voce, this time for the male chorus with Procida and Elena, swearing vengeance as a barcarolle of aristocratic ball guests is heard off stage. Frankly bizarre *.

ACT 3:

Scene 1: Monfort’s study.

8: Monfort’s opening aria as he contemplates admitting his paternity to Arrigo is incredibly dull apart from a dancing tune that pops in rather late in the high strings *.

15: The Arrigo-Monfort paternity duet ** starts off okay but it warms up with a somewhat golden melody we first heard in the overture and something that resembles the climax of O longue souffrance from L’Africaine. Arrigo is horrified upon learning the truth and being presented with Monfort’s proof, a letter from Arrigo’s mother. The rest consists of sedate recitative, fiery duettino, and a reprisal of the golden melody and other elements from the overture.

Scene 2: The ball room of the governor’s palace.

53: And now, the dreaded ballet, this one depicting the Four Seasons. This is more interesting for the soloist instrument work than anything else as there is nothing else here of interest. (It is worth noting that Italian composers wrote significantly longer ballets into their grand operas than did French composers or Meyerbeer. The ballet in act 3 of Le Prophete, which is a billion times more interesting than this, is all of eight or nine minutes, Les Huguenots has just a gypsy dance in act three, and Robert le diable and L’Africaine have ballets that are integrated into the plot, whereas the ballet in act 2 of Donizetti’s Dom Sebastien and act 3 of Verdi’s own Jerusalem are twenty solid minutes and have no baring at all on the story. Why is this?) The chorus eventually (after 30 minutes) comes out and does a minor ditty which sounds a little like the opening of Traviata * before the dancing continues and the conspirators come on. Monfort comes on, is warned in double-talk by Arrigo (who doesn’t want to commit patricide) and Elena is arrested when she attempts to stab Monforte.

60: A reflective ensemble ** as Elena and Procida are really mad at Arrigo, Monforte grateful, Arrigo ashamed and conflicted. What is worth noting here is a patriotic hymn-like section which gets repeated twice. The rest is rather standard but it is a more satisfying act finale than the other two have been.

ACT 4: The castle courtyard.

0: An interesting prelude *, far more so than Arrigo’s rather boring aria of self-reproach. There is a repeated flourish which is nice, but otherwise skip it.

10: Another good duet ** between Elena and Arrigo. At first he has no luck with convincing her that he is anything other than a traitor until he admits that Monforte is his father and that that fact guided his actions. Elena actually understands this (patricide is a really, really horrible thing, and seeing that the entire revenge scenario is about Elena’s brother being executed by Monforte….).

15: An aria for Elena, sedate, but in a lovely way, delicate **.

20: Arrigo’s response has a heavenly harp accompaniment **, it rapidly turns into a duet again.

28: A quartet ** in which Procida and Elena say good-bye to the idea of an independent Sicily, Monforte orders the execution of Elena and Procida, and Arrigo is given an ultimatum: recognize Monforte’s paternity and the conspirators will be set free.

35, 40: Monks are heard off stage singing a De profundis *, Procida and Elena are led away to execution but Arrigo acknowledges Monforte and the executions are stopped, Elena being betrothed to Arrigo. Procida has an idea, use the wedding bells to start the revolt! The finale is strong **, but not quite to the level of the third act finale.

ACT 5: The castle grounds, chapel.

3: After an ornery chorus which is disguised by a flamenco dancer, the first item of any note is Elena’s bolero **. Very tuneful but also very irrelevant.

7: A prenuptial duet for Elena and Arrigo *, sounds like it comes from a comic opera. It is mostly structured as an aria for Arrigo. It is cute, but also irrelevant.

16: Procida comes on and tells Elena that the wedding bells will be the signal for the Sicilian attack, the governor will be killed, also probably Arrigo. Elena doesn’t know what to do: warn Arrigo, call it all off, commit suicide? A trio occurs **.  The finale is a hack job which I could have written: everyone frantic, Elena never figuring out what she is going to do and temporarily calling off the wedding, Arrigo confused, Procida furious with Elena. Monforte arrives, orders the wedding to go on, bells ring, all hell breaks loose. Curtain.


This opera is somewhat irritating. It has some wonderful parts, but taken as a whole it is seriously lacking. The overture, the many duets involving Arrigo (five in total), some of Elena’s pieces, and the act 3 finale are all great alpha material, but saddled to these is a lot of boring music, much of it dramatically ineffectual. The act 2 finale isn’t so much terrifying as incredibly uncomfortable and horrifying, and dramatically it falls apart to the point of becoming laughable. The ballet kills the dramatic flow (and is extremely long even for Paris, could this not have been eight minutes?), Monforte is low-energy, and the finale is scrambled eggs with the fifth act in its entirety being a little irrelevant and dramatically exhausting. I know Donizetti’s Le duc d’Albe upon which this is ultimately based. Although this is stronger musically (it is complete after all) Donizetti’s libretto from Scribe is tighter and makes more sense than Scribe’s work for Verdi. Structurally, there really isn’t enough plot for a five act opera here, it is really a three act opera ballooned up to five acts. The first two acts are obviously tableaux of a single act. Acts four and five are a little harder to connect together. Overall a product that is unworthy of its creators, but with some good pieces which taken individually are worthwhile. Essentially this is Verdi’s Rienzi, a violent overblown mess which if edited down to around two hours would actually be fine. I am actually surprised that that was not what Verdi did when the opera was revised for Italian theatres. A low beta.

2 responses to “Giuseppe Verdi: I vespri siciliani (1855)”

  1. My personal opinion about the ballet length thing: Verdi made it long like that because he was probably trying to be petty about the requirement to include a ballet in the first place. I mean:
    “You have to put in a ballet.”
    “Because it’s how this goes, deal with it.”
    “FINE, but you’re going to regret this.”
    *writes irrelevant 30-minute ballet*


    1. That is very funny! And probably closer to reality than we could ever know for sure!


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