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Les Vêpres siciliennes

Giuseppe Verdi, Libretto by Eugene Scribe and Charles Duveyrier
Teatro Massimo
Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Sicily

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Les Vêpres siciliennes Credit: Rosellina Garbo

Giuseppe Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes premièred in Paris in 1855 and he gave the Parisians the grand opera they wanted; but this story of hatred and revenge, set in the 13th century, has never been popular, offending Italian, French and Austrian sensibilities.

Emma Dante’s production, conducted by Omer Meir Wellber, opened at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo this January. Conductor, orchestra and chorus wear masks.

The opening set is a marble staircase lined with marble statues. The chorus, badly costumed, hang around and some of them awkwardly handle revolvers. There are banners with huge photographs of those who were victims of the modern massacre which happened in Palermo in 1992.

Henri (Leonardo Caimi), a Sicilian lord, is in love with Helene (Selene Zanetti), a French Duchess, whose brother has been murdered by Guy de Montfort (Mattia Olivieri), the Governor of Sicily. Henri swears to kill him only to discover he is the illegitimate son of Montfort and that Montfort is much more benevolent than his tyrant reputation. Torn by conflicting loyalties, he reneges and is condemned as a traitor to infamy.

The casting is strange. In no way could Oliveri be Caimi’s father and his performance is not helped by a costume whose shoulders make him look like an American footballer.

Erwin Schrott as the rebel leader makes his entrance in a boat oddly suspended above the stage. He extols Palermo, queen of cities, which goes down well with the Palermitani. There is a fine quartet in prison and some fine choral singing for the homeland. A clarinettist, a violinist and an accordionist provide a cabaret interlude.

No self-respecting grand opera would be without a ballet. There is a lot of dancing. The rape scene looks comically unconvincing and could be a dance number you might see at the Folies Bergère. The chorus of husbands take an absurd time to react to react. A Virgin Mary icon, which is being carried by six men, comes to life and staggers about the stage before collapsing.

The opera climaxes with the massacre of the French by the Sicilians in 1232 in which 2,000 died. The massacre is dramatically timed to begin during the wedding ceremony when Helen says, “I do” and her marriage to Henri is sealed and the church bells ring out. Dante’s production ends so abruptly there is no time to register the horror.

Verdi’s high spot is act 3 when Henri and Montfort discover they are son and father.

Palermo’s Les Vêpres siciliennes can be viewed free on the Arte Concert channel.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch