Les vêpres siciliennes was Verdi’s first French ‘grande opéra’, which, after much insistence by the Paris Opera, he composed on a libretto by Eugene Scribe and Charles Duyverier. It is one of his longest operas, thanks in part to the lengthy ballet in the third act, which was compulsory for the Paris of the time (no less than half an hour!).
The story is set in Palermo in 1282, during the French occupation of Sicily. The young Sicilian Henri is in love with Hélène, a young Austrian duchess, who is being held prisoner by Guy de Montfort, the French governor of Sicily. When de Montfort turns out to be Henri’s father, the complications are incalculable, and by the end just about everybody is dead. The premiere in 1855 was a fiasco and a few years later, Verdi adapted the work into the Italian I vespri Siciliani, which was much more successful. However, the opera never became a real box-office hit.
Les vêpres siciliennes was the third release in Opera Rara’s series of ‘original versions’, following earlier releases of Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra. It had already been recorded live at The Camden Theatre in London in May 1969 and broadcast by the BBC in February 1970, but the CD was not released until 2004.
The performance, starring Jacqueline Brumaire, Jean Bonhomme and Neilson Taylor, is fair to good, but as a document it is of extraordinary importance (ORCV303).
In June 2002, our unsurpassed Saturday Matinee staged Les vêpres siciliennes concertante. It is a great pity that the recording has never been released on CD, because the performance (with, among others, Nelly Miricioiu, Francisco Casanova and Zeljko Lucic) was really good.
If you want the Italian version of the opera, the choice is a bit greater, but to say the market is flooded with them?
To be honest, I only know of one studio recording of the work (once RCA RD 80370). The cast includes Martina Arroyo, Plácido Domingo, Sherill Milnes and Ruggiero Raimondi. It is well worth seeing, especially as the music is virtually complete.
For the rest, we have to depend on (admittedly, in most cases very interesting) pirate recordings. Highly recommended is a recording with Montserrat Caballé and Plácido Domingo from Barcelona 1974 (SRO 837-2).
The same recording on another label (SRO is no longer available):
Don’t forget La Divina (with Boris Christoff and others), recorded in 1951 during the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Testament SBT 21416).
Fantastic is also the version with Renata Scotto, Gianni and Ruggiero Raimondi from La Scala 1970 The entire opera:
And then there are a few recordings with Cristina Deutekom This one is from Paris 1974:
And Leyla Gencer. Recording from 1970:
Please note: most recordings have been (greatly) shortened. Check the internet just to be sure, because these pirate labels come and go and the difference in price can be enormous.
AND ON DVD
In the 1980s, the American Susan Dunn was immensely popular. She was seen as the ultimate Verdi soprano. In her ‘Bologna years’ she became the favourite singer and protégé of Riccardo Chailly, the chief conductor there at the time. She made many CD recordings with him. Apart from Verdi also Mahler, Schoenberg and Beethoven, and they also recorded opera performances for video.
Elena in I vespri Siciliani was one of her star parts. She sang it, with enormous success, for the first time in 1986 (Warner Music Vision 504678029-2). Luca Ronconi’s production is quite traditional and the decors are true to nature. It feels like being among the cacti on a very sultry Sicily. The costumes also leave nothing to be desired, but the whole performance is rather static.
The audience clearly loves it. One open curtain follows another and the singers gratefully accept all the applause. Even though none of the protagonists are great actors – which may also be due to the director – their singing is of a very high level. And there is a surprise too: Anna Caterina Antonacci in the small role of Ninetta.
Below, Susan Dunn sings “Arrigo! Ah, parli a un core”: