Length: 9 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snaredrum, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: Dec. 28, 1933, Otto Klemperer conducting
If we consider an opera overture as something like a movie trailer - provocative glimpses of what's to come - then Verdi's Les vêpres siciliennes had every reason to be a blockbuster. And, indeed, its 1855 Paris premiere was both a popular and a critical triumph; as one critic effused: "[Verdi] has carried further the respect for dramatic proprieties and dramatic truth; his writing for the orchestra shows colors and accents previously unknown in Italian music. A great and fine work! A great and fine success!" But the movie analogy can be extended even further, as the opera's early hype didn't stand the test of time. Its historical plot, concerning the French occupation of Sicily in the 13th century, quickly struck audiences as archaic. And the composer himself objected to the libretto, especially its portrayal of Sicilian treachery.
The overture, however, manages to distill human depth and drama in a compact form that never loses its energy. After an ominous introduction, it incorporates slightly modified versions of three of the opera's themes: the beginning of the Allegro section represents the massacre of the French occupiers; the lyrical tune over tremolo strings represents the courageous resignation of the Sicilians to their fate. The duet between Monforte, the French governor of Sicily, and Arrigo, the defiant Sicilian who refuses to cooperate (but who we discover is Monforte's son) - an essential moment both musically and dramatically - serves as the principal theme of the piece. The ending is a classic barnstormer.
Susan Key is a musicologist specializing in 20th-century American music, and a co-curator of the Los Angeles Philhar-monic's Inside/Outside seminar series.