‘My greatest sorrow was to have to hate you.’
Powerful, yet lonely and empty inside, full of longing for human feeling: in his aria in Act III of I vespri siciliani Guido di Monforte seems like a forerunner of Verdi’s later ruler figures, Simon Boccanegra and Philip II. The musical portrait of the French governor of Sicily conveys a psychological complexity that is indicative of the new paths followed by Verdi after the ‘trilogia popolare’ of Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. Premiered in1855, Les Vêpres siciliennes (its original French title) is the first work that he composed for the Paris Opéra without — as in the case of Jérusalem — simply reworking an Italian opera. This time his intention was to write a truly elaborate grand opéra that would rival Meyerbeer’s triumphs. The basic subject of the opera, which Verdi demanded should be ‘grandiose, impassioned and original’, was provided by the historical Sicilian revolt against French rule in 1282.
Grand opera — that means not least spectacular dramatic effects and surprises. In the finale of Act IV, for example, the rebel conspirators Elena and Procida are led to their execution to the strains of a De profundis, while Arrigo — another Sicilian patriot — after a violent inner struggle brings himself to a public admission with which he can save his lover and his friend from the executioner’s axe — that he is (as has been revealed to him only a short while before) the illegitimate son of Monforte. To an even greater degree than in the large tableaux, Verdi’s imagination was fired by the individuals and their relationships to one another, by private feelings on which politics casts its dark shadows. In particular the love between Arrigo and Duchess Elena, whose brother had been murdered by the French, expresses itself in a tone of restrained pathos which is characteristic of this adventurous score as a whole and which constitutes one of its especially appealing elements.