The island of Sicily is not only about beaches and sunshine, cuisine, cannoli siciliani and cassata, but also history and ancient ruins. The island has been dominated by various peoples and countries throughout the centuries and that’s the reason why it is so diverse. But probably the most prominent domination there is that of the French in the 13th century. It was in that period of time when the word mafia became known and popular, according to one of the legends. The word itself is of Arabic origin and means “refuge” and at that time of revolt it was related to the native tribes searching for a refuge on the Sicilian hills and opposing their oppressors. Thus the word became an acronym for “Morte Alla Francia, Italia Avanti” (“Death to France, Italy Forward!”), or also “Morte Alla Francia, Italia Anela” (“Death to France, Italy Begs!”). Also the flag was adopted in early 1282 during the Sicilian Vespers in the city of Palermo against the French rule on the island and the rebellion itself was commemorated in one of Giuseppe Verdi’s best operas late in the centuries.
And here is a synopsis on I vespri siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers) which is a grand opera in five acts by the great Italian composer. It is set to a French libretto which was written in the 19-th century. As to the story, it is historically based on the Sicilian Vespers of 1282 against the French rule of the Kingdom of Sicily.
Sicily is occupied by the French troops. The patriot leader Procida is sent in exile. Monforte, the French governor, rapes a Sicilian young lady who gives a birth to a child, named Arrigo, and brings him up. The boy is raised to hate the French and never knows his father is one of them.
Act I: French soldiers celebrate their victory while the Sicilians swear their conquerors. Duchess Elena mourns her brother Frederick of Austria, executed by the French. A French soldier forces her to sing and she inspires the Sicilians with her song to rebel against the occupiers. The agitated crowd attacks the French soldiers but draws back immediately after Monforte appears. All of sudden the cruel governor offers the Sicilian lad fame and fortune in the service of France but Arrigo refuses and follows Elena.
Act II: Procida returns from exile secretly. He, Elena and Arrigo make a plan against the French. The latter confesses his love for Elena and she promises him to love him if he avenges her beloved brother’s death. Arrigo is invited by Monforte to attend a ball, he refuses but Monforte’s soldiers lead him away. Some young couples celebrate their engagement when some of the girls are abducted by the French soldiers. All this forces Procida, Elena and all their followers to go to the ball in question and assassinate the governor.
Act III: Monforte is lonely in his study. He reads a letter from the woman whom she raped many years ago telling him that Arrigo is his son. The latter arrives and gets to know the truth that the governor is his father. He sees that horrible discovery as a further obstacle between himself and Elena.
In the ballroom Procida and Elena reveal their plan of revenge hanging a ribbon (which marks them as conspirators against Monforte) on Arrigo’s clothes. Arrigo doesn’t want to take his father’s side but at the same time he explains the meaning of the ribbons to him. Headed by Elena, conspirators try to assassinate the French governor but his son saves his life and is proclaimed a betrayer by the Sicilian rebels who are arrested and put to prison.
Act IV: Arrigo visits Elena in the prison. He begs her to understand him revealing the reasons for his deed. Elena is terrified. When he declares his willingness to re-join the conspiracy and die for her she confesses that she still loves him. Procida whispers to Elena that foreign forces could help the Sicilian rebellion. All of sudden Monforte arrives and orders the execution of the prisoners. Arrigo pleads for their lives and weakened by the sight of the scaffold he is made to recognize Monforte as his father. Monforte stops the execution. The prisoners are released. The immediate wedding of Elena and Arrigo is announced. Only Procida doesn’t give up on his revenge.
Act V: Both the French and Sicilians prepare for the wedding. Elena is happy and sings about her happiness. Being alone with Elena for a while, Procida tells her that the wedding bells are going to be the signal of the uprising of the Sicilians against the unarmed French. She is worried about Arrigo’s life and tries to cancel the wedding ceremony. Her beloved one sees something strange in her behaviour and shares all this with Monforte. At that very moment the French governor orders the wedding to start, the bells start ringing, the rebels enter and massacre the French.