Synopsis: „Les Vêpres siciliennes“

The Sicilian Vespers

Act One

The Sicilians are suffering under occupation by French troops. The Sicilian duchess, Hélène, is mourning the death of her brother who has been killed in the struggle for liberation and in whom his fellow countrymen had placed all their hopes. In full public view, French soldiers order her to sing a song for them. She consents but then begins singing a spirited song about the lack of freedom, which is meant to rouse the Sicilians from their lethargy. But even this most insignificant flicker of rebellion fails with the appearance of the governor, Montfort.
The young Sicilian rebel, Henri, has surprisingly been released from prison despite open resistance. He is amazed at the weakness which, in his opinion, Montfort has demonstrated by this. Montfort’s offer that he should fight in the service of the French is all the more unexpected.

Act Two

Procida, a doctor, has returned to his beloved native land. Unfortunately, he has failed to gain the support of the Spanish, the reason for his journey. Only if the Sicilians themselves were to revolt against the French would the Spanish be in a position to intervene. Together with Henri and Hélène he now plans to fathom out the possibilities for a revolt. When Henri opens his heart and declares his love for Hélène he is rejected. As long as her brother’s murder has not been avenged, she says, there is no room in her heart for feelings. On Montfort’s orders, soldiers invite Henri to accompany them to the palace. He refuses and is arrested.
At a Sicilian wedding, Procida stirs up feelings among the French soldiers, urging them to make use of their superiority in number and carry off the young Sicilian women, which they immediately do. The shocked Sicilians can only look on helplessly as their women are abducted. Music from a festivity can be heard coming from the governor’s palace and causes them to imagine how their womenfolk might be abused there. Procida therefore persuades the Sicilians to go to the ball in disguise in order to murder Montfort and thus take their revenge.

Act Three

Montfort is quite certain that Henri, the rebel, is his son. He had had an affair with a Sicilian woman years before who, on her deathbed, had written him a letter full of hate. In the letter she admits that they have a son and at the same time begs him to show compassion for the boy. Montfort tells Henri that he is his father, which casts the latter into despair as he realises the predicament this newly-found father will cause between himself and Hélène. Henri refuses all his father’s offers to change sides and wants to have nothing to do with this newly-discovered paternal affection.
At the festivity Hélène tells Henri about the planned conspiracy. When Hélène tries to kill Montfort, Henri throws himself between them, thus saving his father’s life. Hélène considers Henri as having betrayed her. She is arrested together with Procida and the other conspirators.

Act Four

Henri has managed to gain admittance to the prisoners. He wants to convince Hélène that he is still on the side of the conspirators but she turns him away. Only when he confesses that he is Montfort’s son can she forgive him for his betrayal. He, too, wants to die with the conspirators. Faced with the prospect of their inevitable death, they at last admit their love for each other.
Nevertheless, Henri begs Montfort to show mercy for the prisoners. Montfort is, however, only willing to do this if Henri accepts in public that he is his son. Only when the funeral hymn indicates that the execution is imminent does Henri declare Montfort to be his father. Montfort pardons the prisoners and at the same time announces that Henri and Hélène will marry.

Act Five

Hélène and Henri are overjoyed as they see their wedding as a chance for peace. But Procida brings Hélène a message informing her that weapons have arrived from Spain. It is now finally possible to rise up against the enemy occupation. The vespers bell will be the signal for the start of the revolt.
Hélène wants to prevent the massacre and refuses to go through with the wedding in order to prevent the bells from ringing, to Henri’s great consternation. Montfort takes matters into his own hands: against the will of the bride he himself orders the bells to ring out. The Sicilians attack the French.