Death at Sundown: Verdi's 'I Vespri Siciliani'

WOO-1314-vespri-overviewOne of the many stereotypical views of opera is that by the time any opera is over, the drama's major players are all dead. And, like many stereotypes, this one has a basis in truth. There are surely plenty of operatic characters who sing their final lines with their last breaths.

Giuseppe Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani takes that old stereotype and does it one better: At the end of this one, just about everyone has kicked the operatic bucket!

By the mid-1850's, Verdi was on a creative hot streak that few composers have ever matched.  He had just finished three operas that are still among the most popular ever written: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata. He was one of the most famous musicians in Europe -- and he was a long way from finished.

On the heels of those successes, Verdi had a chance to write a new opera for Paris, and at the time, even for a prosperous Italian composer, Paris was the place to be.  The city's theaters were famous for boasting the largest orchestras, the best stage technology, the most lavish productions and the swankiest audiences anywhere in the world -- and with plenty of ticket sales to show for it.  The opera Verdi came up with was Les Vepres Siciliennes -- The Sicilian Vespers.

The piece was a hit in France, though at the time it was impossible to perform the new piece in Italy, where Verdi's previous three operas had all premiered. The drama tells a story of revolution in Sicily, and until the Italian unification in 1861, politics made that a forbidden subject in Italian opera houses.

Eventually, though, the opera did make it back to Verdi's homeland, where his patriotism had made him a political hero as well as a musical superstar.  Today, the Italian version of the opera -- I Vespri Siciliani -- is at least as familiar as the French original.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani in a production from the Vienna State Opera. The stars are two American singers, soprano Angela Meade as Elena and tenor Gregory Kunde as Arrigo, along with the renowned Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Procida, in a performance led by conductor Gianandra Noseda.