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Death at Sundown: Verdi's 'I Vespri Siciliani'

One of the many stereotypical views of opera is that by the time any opera is over, the main characters tend to be dead. And, like many stereotypes, this one is based partly in truth. There are surely plenty of operas with main characters who sing their final lines with their last breaths.

Giuseppe Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani takes that old stereotype and does it one better: At the end of this one, just about everyone has kicked the operatic bucket!

By the mid-1850's, Verdi was on a creative hot streak that few composers have ever matched. He had just finished three operas that are still among the most popular ever written: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata. He was one of the most famous musicians in Europe, and he was a long way from finished.

On the heels of those successes, Verdi had a chance to write a new opera for Paris, where he came up with Les Vepres SiciliennesThe Sicilian Vespers.

At the time, though, it was impossible to perform the new drama in Italy, where Verdi's previous three operas had all premiered. Vespri tells a story of revolution in Sicily, and until the Italian unification in 1861, politics made that a forbidden subject in Italian opera houses.

Eventually, though, the opera did make it back to Verdi's homeland, where his patriotism had made him a political hero as well as a musical superstar. And today, the Italian version of the opera — I Vespri Siciliani is as familiar as the original.

When the French master Hector Berlioz heard the opera in Paris, he said the work had "a grandeur, a solemn mastery more marked than in the composer's previous creations."

Placido Domingo, a modern operatic master, calls I Vespri Siciliani "monumental," and said that's why he chose it for the 50th anniversary season of the Washington National Opera, a company he serves as general director. And that's the production host Lisa Simeone presents on World of Opera, with Domingo himself conducting.

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