skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Overture to I vespri siciliani

About the Work

Giuseppe Verdi
<< Prev    Next >>
2 Total Images
Quick Look Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
© Richard Freed

In its original form, as Les Vepres siciliennes ("The Sicilian Vespers"), with a libretto by Eugene Scribe and Charles Duveyrier, was introduced at the Paris Opera on June 13, 1855. The National Symphony Orchestra gave its first performance of the Overture on July 21, 1958, in a Watergate concert conducted by Giuseppe Antonicelli, and performed it most recently on July 22, 2004, under Patrick Summers, at another outdoor venue, Wolf Trap.

Verdi's nineteenth opera was the first one he wrote for Paris, and the first with a French libretto (although I lombardi had been fitted out with a French text and presented in Paris in 1847 under the title Jerusalem). The French text was translated by Eugenio Caimi for the work's Italian premiere, given at La Scala, Milan, on February 4, 1856, under the title Giovanna di Guzman. Within a very few years the opera was presented with different texts and different titles--Giovanna di Braganza, Giovanna di Sicilia, Batilde di Turenne--and it was only in 1861 that it took its final form, as the Italian opera I vespri siciliani.

The five-act work, commissioned for the Paris Exhibition of 1855, was Verdi's first attempt at writing "grand opera" in the Meyerbeer tradition, and like so many such works it drew upon actual historical events and characters. The French libretto, in fact, was adapted from an earlier one for one of Donizetti's French operas, already forgotten by then: Le Duc d'Alba. The action centers on the efforts of thirteenth-century Sicily to free itself from the French occupation, with a romantic involvement between members of the opposing sides: it is at the wedding of the Duchess Elena, sister of Frederick of Austria, to Arrigo, the son of the island's French governor, Guy de Monfort, that the ringing of the vesper bell to begin the ceremony gives the signal for the Sicilian patriots to rise up and slaughter the unarmed French.

Despite the obvious possibilities provided by such a drama, I vespri siciliani has never taken a place in the international repertory, and is generally regarded as one of his weaker efforts. It is remembered now for the most elaborate ballet episode Verdi put into any of his operas, the half-hour sequence called "The Four Seasons," still sometimes performed on its own; for the noble bass aria "O tu, Palermo," and most frequently by its splendid overture. Francis Toye, Verdi's first English biographer, wrote, "Undoubtedly the best thing about the opera is the overture, perhaps the most successful written by the composer, which is both vigorous and ingenious." In the score it is headed Sinfonia, the term by which a full-scale overture is distinguished from the more modest preludio. Its fiery and lyric themes represent Verdi at his most powerfully expressive in evoking the atmosphere, if not specific images, of the drama about to take place.