Villagers celebrate an upcoming wedding in the Washington National Opera's production of I vespri siciliani.
Elena (soprano Maria Guleghina) is torn between true love and loyalty to a just cause, and prays for guidance.
ACT ONE: 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 Elena. Montforte killed Elena's brother and has taken her hostage in Palermo — thus Elena is supporting the Sicilian revolutionaries. We also have a young Sicilian patriot named Arrigo, and later we'll meet Procida, the Sicilian revolutionary leader.
The opera opens in the Palermo square. Montforte's palace is on one side. Elena, a hostage being held in style, has a palace on the other side. When Elena 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 Elena's message: If they don't like French rule, they're the ones who have to do something about it.
When the crowd gets a bit riled, Montforte comes out of his palace. Things quiet down, and then Arrigo appears. He had been in prison, but for no apparent reason the French authorities have released him. Arrigo 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 says "you just have," and reveals his identity. The governor tells everyone else to leave, and speaks with Arrigo privately. He's impressed with the Sicilian's boldness, and offers him a job in the French army. Arrigo tells Montforte what he can do with his job. Then Montforte tells Arrigo that he'd better stay away from Elena. So, naturally, Arrigo marches straight into Elena's palace.
ACT TWO: The leader Procida is in a valley outside Palermo. He's joined by Arrigo and Elena for a strategy session. Elena is impressed with Arrigo's revolutionary spirit. He says part of the reason for his newfound fervor is Elena 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 Arrigo 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 Elena 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.
ACT THREE: 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 Arrigo. Montforte is then informed that Arrigo has been arrested, and is being held nearby. He gives orders that Arrigo be treated well, and says he wants to see the prisoner immediately.
When Arrigo is shown in, and the two are alone, Montforte gives him proof that they are father and son. He hopes this revelation will make Arrigo rethink his rebellious activities, and align himself with the French. Arrigo 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 Elena, Arrigo and Procida. Elena tells Arrigo 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 Arrigo is torn between his love for Elena 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 Elena draws a dagger to stab Montforte. But as she approaches, Arrigo stops her. Elena, Procida and the other plotters are quickly arrested and taken away, while denouncing Arrigo as a traitor.
ACT FOUR: Arrigo has obtained permission from Montforte to see Elena and Procida. Elena turns up first. Arrigo 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. Elena finally understands Arrigo's actions, and the two reaffirm their love and allegiance.
Procida then arrives. He's not happy when he sees Arrigo with Elena, and there's no time for them to explain. Montforte shows up right on Procida's heels, and summons the executioner. Arrigo begs Montforte to give the prisoners clemency. Montforte says he might just do that, but only on one condition: Arrigo must acknowledge that he is Montforte's son. At first Arrigo refuses. But as Elena 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, Arrigo, to marry Elena — to cement the French peace with Sicily. At first Elena refuses, despite her love for Arrigo. 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; Elena and Arrigo celebrate their love; and Procida warns that love will soon turn to vengeance.
ACT FIVE: The action resumes with Elena singing a happy song. Arrigo is also feeling chipper, anticipating wedded bliss. They're together briefly before Arrigo leaves to visit Montforte. While Elena is alone, Procida approaches her. He tells her that he now considers Arrigo to be a Frenchman, and thus the enemy. This leaves Elena with a dilemma. Should she go through with her marriage to Arrigo, 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.
Arrigo, 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 Elena has decided against the marriage, he intervenes. He announces that he knows she genuinely loves Arrigo, 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 and the entire wedding party