Medieval European politics! Yes, I knew that would grab you. They were complicated, inbred, and brutal. They were intimately wrapped up with church politics too. You see, they really are relevant—nothing changes, just the outward trappings.
Maybe while one is having flu-like symptoms isn’t the best time to write about a bloody massacre from the year 1282, but the way I’m feeling today, I wish one of those testosterone-fueled Palermitans would swoop in on horseback and cut off my head!
Let’s turn the way-back machine to March 30, 1282. Place: Palermo, Sicily. (Today, it’s part of Italy, a country only unified in the mid 19th century, and it remains a very fractious part at that.) Back then, “Sicily” was a vague term for most of the Italian peninsula below Rome, including the island we call Sicily. In fact, the French called it the “two Sicilies,” and since 1266, with help from the Pope, installed their own king of the region, Charles d’Anjou. He had his own ambitions, which included sailing to Constantinople and conquering it. He was the most powerful sovereign in Europe at the time. The Sicilian Vespers had a similar impact in its time as WWII did in ours.
There are a lot of really convoluted crown inheritance rights issues in the background to this story. The event takes its name from the vespers (sunset prayer service) that marks the beginning of the Easter Night vigil. Thousands of Palermo’s French citizens were massacred over a six week period. The political adjustment took years. The exact details of what happened are lost in the lists of time, and have acquired a mythical aura, but the oppressed natives definitely did, through violent action, state their unhappiness with the regime.
By now, you may be humming one of the tunes from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Les Vêpres siciliennes (1855), his first “grand” opera, written for the Paris Opera. If you’re thinking that an opera about a massacre of French people makes a strange offering for a French opera house, you are not alone. Is it an example of Freudian humor? Whatever the case, its libretto plays very loose with historical accuracy, setting the bloodbath at a wedding and condensing the action, as a successful opera book by necessity must.
Verdi reworked the opera twice, changing the language to Italian and the location of events to Portugal (!), and it is with this version that most people today are familiar. Sometimes a hybrid is made from elements of the first French version and the later Italian one.
The great American soprano Martina Arroyo made something of a specialty of the lead soprano role, Elena. The opera is what I like to call “man-heavy,” with the great booming lower male voices that so often encapsulate Verdi’s psychological symbolism of the “father,” or the “ruler.”
I believe a recording exists, from the early 70s, with Arroyo, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, and Ruggiero Raimondi, with James Levine conducting. You could do much worse than study it, as a master class in style and vocal beauty. With the increasing strains on James Levine’s health causing him to reduce his workload, let’s hope his vast recorded legacy doesn’t become the only way of appreciating his mastery.
This Wednesday will mark the 729th anniversary of the “vespers.” How will you celebrate it?
© 2011 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs