In 1988 Giorgio Zancanaro, Chris Merritt and Cheryl Studer appeared in Guglielmo Tell at La Scala. This, of course, is the tale of a brave Swiss patriot struggling to save his country from the evil Austrians. The production must have been a success. A year later, the same trio were back at La Scala in I Vespri Siciliani, the story of a brave Sicilian patriot struggling to save his country from the evil French. Both operas were originally staged by Opera Paris but these productions are given in the more usual Italian translation.
The opera gets off to a rollicking start with one of Verdi's best overtures. We get a taste of the stirring, patriotic music that pervades the whole piece. Baritone Giorgio Zancanaro is excellent as the grizzled, Guy de Montford. Zancanara seems much more at home here, playing the evil governor than he was as the saintly Guglielmo. Tenor Chris Merritt impresses as the patriot Arrigo and he is ably supported by Cheryl Studer as Elena. Even so, a certain amount of suspension of belief is necessary when imagining this pair as young lovers.
The title alludes to an uprising that started at Vespers on Easter Monday 1282 when the Sicilians rose against their French oppressors and massacred them. However Verdi's French librettists do not linger for long over the politics of the story. They are more concerned with the conflict between patriotism and filial devotion when Arrigo discovers that he is the son of the evil governor. At this point the narrative becomes a bit overwrought, which perhaps explains why this opera, with its approachable musical score, is rarely performed.
This being a Paris opera, there is a lengthy ballet sequence featuring some of the most boring music that Verdi ever wrote. Future producers of this piece may well consider cutting the ballet and saving twenty minutes or so of the 3 hour 20 minute running time. However, an unexpected bonus of using a French libretto is that the Italian translation uses the more singable tu form rather than the clunky voi form that an original Italian libretto would have used.