Death at Sundown: Verdi's 'The Sicilian Vespers'

WOO-1408-Vespers-250Over the years -- over the centuries, really -- any number of stereotypes have developed about what opera is all about. And frankly, we try not to encourage them here, as most of those stereotypical views of opera are either simplistic, or just plain wrong.  

Yet there is one basic and widely held view of opera that does have a grain of truth to it -- maybe two or three grains -- and it's reinforced by the opera featured here, Verdi's The Sicilian Vespers. That view holds that an opera's not over until at least one of its main characters is dead. And in fact plenty of operas, including some great ones, do have death as a key ingredient.

A prime example is one that's almost certainly the first great opera ever written. Monteverdi's Orfeo. In that drama, Orfeo learns early on about the death of his bride Euridice. It's the event that gets the whole opera rolling. So in a way, that death is the dramatic event that gets the entire history of opera rolling.

In Orfeo, that tragic moment is rather subtle. In fact, the death itself doesn't even happen onstage. With time, of course, death at the opera became more and more commonplace, and certainly more sensational -- consider the bloody bridal gown in Donizetti's Lucia, or the diva's suicidal plunge from the parapet in Puccini's Tosca.  

Still, of all the operas that feature fatal illness, murderous jealousy and bloody revenge, there's one that may be deadlier than them all. At the end of The Sicilian Vespers just about everyone meets their maker.

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. On the heels of those successes, Verdi got the chance to write a new opera for Paris, where he came up with Les Vêpres Siciliennes -- The Sicilian Vespers. When the French master Hector Berlioz heard Verdi's Vêpres in Paris, he said the work had "a grandeur, a solemn mastery more marked than in the composer's previous creations."

By now, the opera is probably most familiar in the later, Italian edition of the score, I Vespri Siciliani. But on World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents the original, French version, in a brand new production from London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It's led by the company's music director, conductor Antonio Pappano, and features soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Hélène, tenor Bryan Hymel as Henri, and bass-baritone Erwin Schrott as Procida.