By the time Les vêpres siciliennes (the Italian version, which quickly became the most commonly performed, would follow suit) premièred in the Paris Opéra on 13 June 1855, Giuseppe Verdi was a beaten man. The entire endeavour was only bound to fail. Verdi disliked the libretto from Eugène Scribe from the outset, their divergent views of opera remaining unsurmountable. Scribe was regarded as the finest French librettist of his time, and some of his works had been hugely successful on stage – Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots is but one example. His preference to place a historical event at the core of his stories would also hold for the libretto he handed Verdi. However, on this occasion he undertook a sort of copy-and-paste exercise. The original story didn’t depict the Sicilian massacre we see and hear. Rather, it was adapted from a story he had previously written for Donizetti – whose death prevented him from finishing a score for it – set in 1573 and telling of the Spanish occupation of The Netherlands. Moving location and period proved somewhat problematic.

The libretto would just the tip of the iceberg. Verdi struggled from the very beginning. In a letter to a friend he wrote: “I am composing very slowly, or rather I am not composing at all”. His differences with Scribe would only increase through time. Verdi felt disregarded, his requests for changes in the libretto always ignored. Moreover, he feared that the libretto would offend both the French and the Italians. “I am an Italian above all and, come what may, I will never become an accomplice in injuring my country”. It is only ironic that the opera premièred to great success and was hailed by his own countrymen.

Given how much Verdi loathed the story, it might not be entirely inadequate to present it in a concert version as the Teatro Real proposed: forget about the preposterous story and just listen carefully, they might have thought. This was a concert of many virtues. Heading those was a cast that was overall extraordinary, genuinely acting as an ensemble – so much so that the small cracks that inevitably crept in did not really matter. With most singers of Italian origin, an extra treat was a crystalline diction.  

The first to prove her worth was Julianna Di Giacomo, her beautiful soprano thriving in this repertoire: a rounded voice rich in overtones that reaches high notes with ease and dives into the chest register without hesitation, yet is also capable of singing vulnerably. Di Giacomo was there to live the story of love and horror, even if her score was the only prop she had. Her Elena was way more dramatically compelling than what many other singers on sophisticated staged productions are ever able to achieve. “Oh mio fratel, Federigo”, the first line of her first recitativo, is all it took for her to draw everyone into her sorrow. She only showed some signs of weariness much later on, not quite reaching all of her high notes in “Mercé, dilette amiche” and lacking a touch of agility in some of the coloraturas, but this was a trade-off easy to accept in exchange for her magnificent performance.

Her love interest, Arrigo, was a remarkable creation from Piero Pretti. The announcement at the beginning of the concert that he was indisposed and was only singing in deference to the audience was entirely unnecessary. His voice barely showed strain and carried easily with a limpid brilliance throughout the entire range. Of particular beauty was the long recitative that opens the fourth act, where, haunted by guilt, he visits his imprisoned friends (“Voi per me qui gemete in orrida prigion”). Such guilt is unfounded, his apparent betrayal only a consequence of uncovering the identity of his long-lost father, Guido di Monforte, brought to life by Franco Vassallo.The last of this most remarkable trinity of singers, his was, among other, the beginning of Act III, where he recounts the moment where he learned of his fatherhood to Arrigo. His “O figlio” was a vivid illustration of a progenitor in agony. His voice was perhaps a touch less clear than those of Arrigo and Elena, but if anything that brought increased credibility to what is a more senior character.

This was also true of Giovanni di Procida, who fell in the safe hands of Ferruccio Furlanetto. His voice might not be what it used to be – and perhaps as a consequence of that he was at times pushing it through – but his experience and dramatic qualities compensated for any lack of vocal brilliance and he carried his complex character elegantly. In “O tu Palermo!” he embodies the relief and exhaustion of the exiled who finally returns home. He will defend his homeland above anything else, and unravel the tragic end that we only imagine but never completely see.

Joining all the dots was James Conlon, the current music director of the Los Angeles Opera and, amusingly, someone who knows the Paris Opéra (with which Verdi felt such unease) by heart since he served as its principal conductor for almost a decade. The Teatro Real gave him a warm welcome and an enthusiastic farewell. He led the orchestra and chorus with clarity and vigour while supporting the singers in their epic journeys. There was much proficiency in his conducting, many years of accumulating a wealth of knowledge and perfecting his craft. There were teething problems, some of which took more than an act or two to fix, but it would be unfair to blame those on Conlon. The main difficulty was to get the ensemble working like clockwork. Too often we heard the orchestra about half a second ahead of the soloists and the choir. This may very well have to do with the space rather than the baton. The choir, for instance, was so far back that much of their sound went upwards rather than forwards, and it is no surprise it tended to arrive with a bit of delay. Synchronising the orchestra and the soloists also proved to be hard, interestingly in some arias rather than recitatives. It is not easy to get used to a concert setting at the Teatro Real, and there were probably limited rehearsals. If precision proved a challenge in the overture and beyond, by the second act things looked and sounded much better. All that was left then was to sit back and enjoy.