By the time he presented Rigoletto to the world, in 1851, Verdi was cock of the walk. Aside from Rossini, no living opera composer was in such demand. Verdi could choose the projects that intrigued him and, as with many an Italian composer before him, Paris was one of his goals. Thus, when the Opéra requested a work for the gala season of the Exhibition of 1855, Verdi was delighted. But although he welcomed the chance to write for the very different style of the Opéra, to compete with the likes of Meyerbeer and Halévy on their home ground, he wanted a level playing field. His Parisian grand opera must not be set to the verses of some house hack, but to a poem by no less a genius than Eugène Scribe. "I must have a grandiose project, impassioned and original, with an imposing mise-en-scène," he wrote the great librettist in the summer of 1852. "In my mind's eye, I see the many magnificent scenes in your poems, among others the coronation scene in Le Prophète. No one could have made more of that than Meyerbeer did, but given that spectacle, and that situation, no composer could have failed to achieve a great effect.... But you habitually make such miracles, so I hope you will make one for me."
What did Le Prophète and Scribe's other grand operas have that so dazzled Verdi and, indeed, the entire operatic world? And how did this produce Les Vêpres Siciliennes (to use the opera's original title)?
French grand opera, as we understand the term, burst upon the world in 1828, with Auber's La Muette de Portici, a five-act extravaganza based on a revolt of Neapolitan fishermen against Spanish rule. Grand opera was very much a creation of its post-Revolutionary era. A larger lyric art was called for, with a less ornamental vocal technique, able to cut through the larger orchestras and fill the larger new opera houses to please the far larger audience made up of the newly powerful bourgeoisie. Besides its conflicting plots and scenes of carefully researched local color, La Muette transformed the world of opera by its use of the chorus. Instead of commenting from the background on the behavior of the principals, the chorus became a principal character itself, impassioned, heroic or hostile, representing a nation itself in a historic era in which the nation was the hero.
And the librettist of La Muette, the man who helped work this transformation was Eugène Scribe. What's more, he had done it again, for Auber in Gustave III (1833), for Meyerbeer with Robert le Diable (1831), Les Huguenots (1836), and Le Prophète (1849), for Halévy in La Juive (1835), for Donizetti in Les Martyrs (1839) and La Favorite (1840), just to mention a few.
The Scribe model called, first, for some historic incident, the more vaguely remembered the better, allowing the librettist to invent, for such singers as were under contract, a foreground story to taste, with conflict among big themes, such as love, vengeance, and duty. The man in the street might barely recall the events or the names, but at least he would comprehend the questions at issue in broad, inevitable, melodious strokes. Frustrated national aspirations were always clear and in the current headlines. Religious intolerance was never a good thing, but its rituals could be thrilling. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of a Scribe libretto, a trait clearly related to the well-made dramas he wrote for the non-musical theater, is the way his plots balance the personal story with the larger catastrophe‹superb opportunity, as Verdi pointed out, for any theater composer who knows his business.
The theater bug bit Eugène Scribe early, and before he was 25 he figured out how to please an audience. He wrote in every genre, and succeeded in all of them: sketches, political satires, comedies of manners, epic verse tragedies, ballets, opéra-comiques, and grand opera. He often passed an evening with friends improvising scenes or characters based on the day's headlines or its gossip. After a few weeks' work, Scribe would produce a completed piece based on that situation or those characters. Even more astonishing, he insisted on sharing the signature with his friends, and even on splitting the royalties.
He is credited with three particular achievements: He invented the "well-made play," in which the plot is a well-designed machine, hints of fact or character in the first scenes leading logically to a surprising but satisfying outcome with, often, some uplifting (or cautionary) message. Scribe's template is still used for many a television sit-com episode.
Scribe also revolutionized the opéra-comique, giving the farce of earlier ages a more sentimental subtext‹and for that reason allowing composers scope to deepen its musical appeal until such works became only-slightly-less-than-grand operas.
Scribe's third great achievement was grand opera. The book for these works took more of his time than anything else he tackled, and required more of him as a collaborator. For one thing, there was the verse. While he was despised by contemporaries like Hugo and Baudelaire, it was Scribe who broke the tyranny of the alexandrine on the French lyric stage‹the 12-syllable line that makes almost any French drama or opera from before the Revolution seem impossibly stately today. Scribe produced verse suitable to the action it expressed: lines that were uneven or short and whose rhythms inspired a new style of music that breathed the spirit of the era.
But in 1852 Scribe was no longer the youth who laid siege to Paris 40 years earlier. He was 61, wealthy and full of honors, and a member of the Académie since 1834. Marriage to a charming widow put an end to the creative supper parties. When Verdi insisted on his services, Scribe was modest enough to be highly flattered (Verdi's relationships with librettists often began with honey and ended as vinegar). Though still productive, Scribe could no longer concoct a perfect story out of thin air and a forgotten historic anecdote, and have it versified a few weeks later.
Before Verdi reached Paris, Scribe had sent him two scenarios: Les Circassiens‹sensational tribal misbehavior in the Caucasus (already rejected by Meyerbeer; ultimately set by the indefatigable Auber)‹and Wlaska, a tale of an army of Amazons in mythical Bohemia, eventually passed on to Halévy. Neither story appealed to Verdi. But that he was being offered stories that had already been rejected elsewhere is a clue to Scribe's new weariness, and the solution he reached in Verdi's case.
As long ago as 1839 Scribe had contrived Le Duc d'Albe for Donizetti, a story of concealed paternity set against a backdrop of the most notorious of national uprisings, the Dutch Revolt against Spain, renowned in Goethe's Egmont (remembered today for its incidental music by Beethoven). When Albe was half composed, the impresario found it unsuitable for a singer he liked, and persuaded Donizetti to supply La Favorite for her instead. Scribe took the matter to court and won considerable damages‹and the return of his property for resale.
The libretto certainly had everything Verdi could reasonably want: famous names and a story full of passionate conflict when the hero, Marcel, who loves the executed Egmont's daughter, Amélie, learns he is the bastard of the hated Duke of Alba; local color (a Flemish beer hall); and a climactic final tableau: Amélie attempts to assassinate Alba, and Marcel, from filial loyalty, steps forward and receives the fatal blow. Curtain.
We may presume Verdi liked this libretto, because he did set it‹as Les Vêpres Siciliennes. But he did not care for the Dutch setting. We don't know why, because he was in Paris by this point and discussed matters with Scribe in person, not by letter. Scribe, as always, tried to be accommodating. Verdi wanted a southern locale, and they ransacked Italian history, ripe as it is with tyrants and uprisings, for something useful. Naples was out, because La Muette de Portici was still a repertory favorite, but someone proposed the Sicilian Vespers uprising of 1282, when French invaders were driven from that island. The name was well known‹several authors of historical dramas had recently tackled the subject, inventing plots to fit the few facts (or legends) that anyone remembered. In theory, as Scribe cheerfully wrote to a friend, the Duke of Alba simply had to pack his bags and move to Palermo. He asked correspondents in Italy for traditional Sicilian customs he could work in (the Antwerp beer hall was replaced by a masked ball), any traditional dances besides the eternal tarantella (already a cliché), and any local holy processions besides Santa Rosalia, Palermo's patron (already familiar to Parisians from Robert le Diable.
But transforming the libretto's semi-historic figures proved more than a geographical chore. John of Procida, whose adventures had been the focus of other dramas, had not been the tyrant of Palermo but the mastermind of the revolt‹therefore he could not stand in for the wicked Alba. For his tyrant, Scribe found an obscure Montfort (son of the man who founded England's Parliament) who had worked with the French invaders, apparently without setting foot on Sicily. Slotting him in as villain did not work either‹the name of Alba still raised shudders in anyone who had read of the Dutch Revolt; Montfort's name raised none, and as the drama shows him discovering the joys of fatherhood, he seems more sympathetic than the bloodthirsty Procida.
Too, in the new libretto as Scribe completed it, the climactic discovery, by Hélène, that Henri is the tyrant's son takes place in a dungeon, with no one else around to notice. Verdi's setting of this duet and the double ensemble it leads to is among the peaks of his middle period, tension splendidly sustained on melody, from personal problem to public denouement‹but this only gets us to the end of Act IV and there is still no sign of our vespers massacre. The opera then might end with either a stunning but intimate tragedy like the Duc d'Albe or a general riot‹but not both. The choice of title forced Scribe and Verdi to go for the latter, and it is seldom clear, in performance, who has massacred whom. According to Scribe's printed libretto, all three principals are slain by the furious Sicilians‹after all, Henri is now the son of a Frenchman, and Hélène is his bride. But even though Verdi's autograph contains a fully scored setting of the fate of the principals, this final scene was abandoned and is never performed; rather, as the final curtain falls the armed Sicilian chorus bursts in to massacre the French.
Scribe's method, and his presentation of the personal made tremendous by its setting in the historic, haunted and inspired Verdi. In terms of operatic structure it is with Vespri that Verdi moved from the language of his middle period into the stylistic features that are so frequently associated with his later works. In fact, there is no subsequent opera by Giuseppe Verdi that does not owe some debt to the composer's brush with a libretto about a Dutch revolt with Spain.