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

The opera's five acts are set in and around Palermo in the 13th century. At that time, Sicily was ruled by the French -- a fact that didn't sit well with the Sicilians. In the cast of characters, there's Montforte, the French governor of Sicily, and the Austrian Duchess Hélène. Montforte killed Hélène's brother and has taken her hostage in Palermo -- thus Hélène is supporting the Sicilian revolutionaries. We also have a young Sicilian patriot named Henri, and later we'll meet Procida, the Sicilian revolutionary leader.

ACT ONE opens in the Palermo square. Montforte's palace is on one side. Hélène, a hostage being held in style, has a palace on the other side. When Hélène appears in the square, some French soldiers order her to sing for their entertainment. She sings a song about sailors caught up in a storm. When they pray for help, God tells them they hold their future in their own hands. The Sicilians in the crowd get Hélène's message: If they don't like French rule, they're the ones who must do something about it.

When the crowd gets a bit riled, Montforte comes out of his palace. Things quiet down, and then Henri appears. He had been in prison, but for no apparent reason the French authorities have released him. Henri doesn't recognize Montforte, and starts railing about the unjust French governor, saying he'd like to meet this slimy so-and-so face to face. Montforte reveals himself, saying "you just have."

The governor tells everyone else to leave, and speaks with Henri privately. He's impressed with the Sicilian's boldness, and offers him a job in the French army. Henri tells Montforte what he can do with his job. Then Montforte tells Henri that he'd better stay away from Hélène. So, naturally, Henri marches straight into Hélène's palace.

In ACT TWO, the rebel leader Procida is in a valley outside Palermo. He is joined by Henri and Hélène for a strategy session. Hélène is impressed with Henri's revolutionary spirit. He says part of the reason for his newfound fervor is Hélène herself; he's in love with her. They pledge their devotion to one another, and to the Sicilian cause. French soldiers show up to invite Henri to a ball at the Governor's mansion, but he refuses the invitation and is immediately hauled off to jail.

Procida returns, and before long he and Hélène find themselves in the middle of a local wedding celebration -- 12 Sicilian couples are about to be married. Procida decides on an unscrupulous plan to provoke the locals to armed rebellion. He quietly goes to some French soldiers, and suggests that it's their right as occupiers to have their way with the Sicilian brides before they're married. The soldiers carry the young women away, and Procida recruits the Sicilian men to help with his plot to assassinate the French governor, Montforte.

As ACT THREE begins, Montforte is alone in his palace, ruminating on his past. He reveals that, almost 20 years ago, he abducted a Sicilian woman, who bore him a son. He then disowned them both. Recently, the woman died -- but not before sending Montforte a deathbed letter, telling him that the son he turned away long ago is actually Henri. Montforte is then informed that Henri has been arrested, and is being held nearby. He gives orders that Henri be treated well, and says he wants to see the prisoner immediately.

When Henri is shown in, and the two are alone, Montforte gives him proof that they are father and son. He hopes this revelation will make Henri rethink his rebellious activities, and align himself with the French. Henri wavers -- but only for a moment -- before he rejects Montforte's attentions altogether.

The rest of the act takes place in a great hall in the Governor's residence. A ball is in progress, with all of Palermo's prominent citizens in attendance, including Hélène, Henri and Procida. Hélène tells Henri that there's a plot in place to assassinate the Governor that very night. She pins a ribbon on his chest, as a signal to the conspirators that he is one of them.

But Henri is torn between his love for Hélène and his allegiance to the Sicilian cause, and the recent discovery that Montforte is actually his father. Finally, he goes to Montforte and warns him of the assassination plans. As the men two are talking, they're surrounded by plotters, and Hélène draws a dagger to stab Montforte. But as she approaches, Henri stops her. Hélène, Procida and the other plotters are quickly arrested and taken away, while denouncing Henri as a traitor.

In ACT FOUR, Henri has obtained permission from Montforte to see Hélène and Procida. Hélène turns up first. Henri tries to apologize to her, but she tells him he's a coward as well as a traitor. At that, he reveals his dilemma, telling her he is actually Montforte's son. Hélène finally understands Henri's actions, and the two reaffirm their love and allegiance.

Procida then arrives. He's not happy when he sees Henri with Hélène, and there's no time for them to explain. Montforte shows up right on Procida's heels, and summons the executioner. Henri begs Montforte to give the prisoners clemency. Montforte says he might just do that, but only on one condition: Henri must acknowledge that he is Montforte's son. At first Henri refuses. But as Hélène is being led to the scaffold, he gives in and falls at Montforte's feet, calling him, "my father."

Montforte quickly grants the prisoners a pardon. He also gives orders for his son, Henri, to marry Hélène — to cement the French peace with Sicily. At first, Hélène refuses despite her love for Henri. But Procida — who clearly has another plot in the works — urges her to go through with the wedding. She agrees, and the ceremony is scheduled for that very day, during the evening's Vespers. The act ends with a spectacular ensemble: Montforte proclaims the peace he has brought to Sicily; Hélène and Henri celebrate their love; and Procida warns that love will soon turn to vengeance.

For ACT FIVE, the action resumes with Hélène singing a happy song. Henri is also in good spirits, anticipating wedded bliss. They're together briefly before Henri leaves to visit Montforte. While Hélène is alone, Procida approaches her. He tells her that he now considers Henri to be a Frenchman, and thus the enemy. This leaves Hélène with a dilemma. Should she go through with her marriage to Henri, whom she truly loves, or stay loyal to the cause of Sicilian liberation? She decides that principle trumps passion, and that she can't go through with the wedding.

Henri, naturally, feels betrayed -- but so does Procida. That's because Procida has yet another plan in the works. A rebel force is in place, and the bells announcing the wedding are supposed to signal an attack on all the French authorities who will attend the ceremony. Now, it seems, the wedding is off.

But when Montforte learns that Hélène has decided against the marriage, he intervenes. He says he knows she genuinely loves Henri, and respects that love. So he joins their hands and immediately announces that they are man and wife. At that, the wedding bells ring out, and the Sicilians attack. In a bloody final sequence, all the French are massacred, along with Montforte, the bride and groom, and the entire wedding party, as the opera ends.