Les vêpres siciliennes was commissioned by the Paris Opéra in 1852 and allowed Verdi the chance to work with the great librettist and Meyerbeer collaborator Eugene Scribe. Scribe had previously offered the libretto, to Donizetti for the opera Le duc d'Albe, but the opera was left unfinished at the composer's death in 1848.
The story is based on the events surrounding the Sicilian uprising against the French at Palermo in 1282, concluding with the massacre of the French. The political sensitivity of the subject matter caused Verdi a number of censorship problems when the work was translated into Italian.
After an unusually long period of composition, the work was produced on 13 June 1855 in Paris. It marks the start of a new period in Verdi's output in which the composer became more concerned with Grand Opera, and displays a new command of choral and orchestral forces. However, Verdi was unable to bring the characters to life in the manner of his earlier operas and the work was not all that he hoped for.
Les vêpres includes a ballet sequence in Act III, Les quatre saisons, and a long overture. Procida's patriotic aria O patrie from Act II is also particularly attractive.
Verdi was born into a humble family of small landowners and taverners. At the age of seven he was helping the local church organist, with whom he later studied in nearby Busseto. He became the organist’s assistant in 1829. He already had several compositions under his belt when, in 1832, he was sent to Milan. Unfortunately, Verdi was refused a place at the Conservatory and instead studied with Vincenzo Lavigna, a composer and former La Scala musician. In 1835 Verdi returned to Busseto where he was passed over as maestro di cappella but became town music master in 1836. There he married Margherita Barezzi, his patron’s daughter.
Verdi had trouble getting his works performed or published, but he decided to settle in Milan in 1839 where the opera Oberto was finally performed at La Scala and further operas commissioned. It went well, but his next opera, Un Giorno di Regno, failed totally, and his wife died during its composition. Their two children had died as babies, and the combined effect brought Verdi’s composition to a halt. However, he read the libretto for Nabucco and decided to write an opera on it. It was performed in 1842 and over the next five years his fame spread across Europe and America.
Following more successes, the period Verdi later called his “years in the galleys” now began. His success meant a lot of work, with a long and demanding series of commissioned operas to compose and usually direct. Between 1844 and 1850 Verdi wrote 11 operas which were performed in Paris, London, Rome, Milan, Naples, Venice, Florence and Trieste, with a break in 1846 when he became ill. Between 1851 and 1853, Verdi produced his most popular operas, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata, the most personal and intimate of Verdi’s operas. The first two were well received, but La Traviata was a failure in Venice.
Verdi had been living with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi for several years, and they moved to Paris, where another opera, Les Vêpres Siciliennes was performed. Verdi and Giuseppina married in 1859.
Back in Italy, Verdi was involved in politics (The movement for Italian unity) as representative of Busseto (where he now lived). He was later elected to the National Parliament, and ultimately he became a Senator. In 1862 La Forza del Destino had its premiere at St. Petersburg. A revised Macbeth was performed in Paris in 1865, and after Don Carlos in Paris in 1867, Verdi returned to Italy, to live at Genoa.
In his last years, Verdi composed less and less opera, preferring to write works such as his 1873 string quartet and the Requiem , though he did write Aida, performed in 1871, and Otello , completed in 1886. He spent his last years in Milan, rich and happy. When he died in 1901, 28,000 people lined the streets for his funeral. Altogether he composed 32 operas, many of which hold high positions in the world of opera today. Verdi founded the Rest Home for Musicians in Milan which he opened a few weeks before his death.
MIDI FILE - From "Nabucco": Overture (7'37'')