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Article

William Y. Elias

Opera in two acts (16 scenes) by Josef Tal to a libretto (in Hebrew) by Israel Eliraz; Hamburg, Städtische Oper, 9 November 1971 (in German).

Inspired by an ancient Talmudic legend, and an allegory about totalitarianism, the opera is set in an idyllic, peaceful country. The King (lyric baritone) hates the Queen (mezzo-soprano), whom he married only to prevent war with her father, and is in love with the Landlady (soprano). In Act 1, the devil Ashmedai (tenor) appears one night to the King and suggests that if he, Ashmedai, could rule as king for a year, he could turn the peace-loving citizens into bloodthirsty savages while the King could live happily with the Landlady. The King has such faith in his people that he agrees to the bet, but as soon as Ashmedai assumes the physical traits of the King and ascends the throne the citizens turn into intolerant, aggressive killers. A terrible war breaks out, causing total destruction. In Act 2, Ashmedai has won his bet, but the real King refuses to reclaim the throne because his faith in his people has been shattered. Ashmedai changes into a rooster and is devoured, unknowingly, by the Queen and her entourage. The King returns to his throne but refuses to continue the war, despite the advice of his Son (tenor), the commander of the army, and is lynched by the furious masses. Ashmedai appears to the people but they refuse to believe the truth. In an apocalyptic scene the physical world disintegrates, leaving only the King’s naked body with his anguished, faithful Daughter (soprano) leaning over him....

Article

John S. Powell

(‘David and Jonathan’)

Sacred opera in five acts by Marc-Antoine Charpentier to a libretto by François Bretonneau; Paris, Collège Louis-le-Grand, 28 February 1688.

The drama is set in the Holy Lands during biblical times. King Saul (bass), on the eve of his battle against the Philistines, consults a Witch (haute-contre), who in turn summons the ghost of Samuel (bass); Samuel predicts defeat. David (haute-contre), banished from the camp of the Israelites by Saul, has joined the Philistine army. In spite of his desire for peace, David is forced to fight against the Israelites and his beloved friend Jonathas [Jonathan] (soprano), son of Saul. When he sees his sons dying and himself about to be captured, Saul falls on his sword. Jonathan, mortally wounded, dies in David’s arms, while the Israelites proclaim David to be Saul’s successor as their king.

David et Jonathas served as a five-part intermède to the spoken tragedy ...

Article

Golem  

Andrew Clements

Opera in two parts (Prelude and legend) by John Casken to a libretto by the composer with Pierre Audi; London, Almeida Theatre, 28 June 1989.

The ancient Jewish legend of the Golem describes how a saviour figure is created to protect the innocent when a community is under threat. Casken’s treatment of the legend relates its main action in flashback. In the Prelude the Maharal (baritone) remembers in old age how, many years before, he had created a golem. Accompanied by six ghostly madrigalists (the other members of the cast), he relives in his imagination the events that led to the death of his creation, while Ometh (countertenor) reminds the Maharal of his own role in the tragedy. The Legend then tells that story in five scenes. The young Maharal creates the Golem (bass-baritone) from clay on the banks of a river, although Ometh, a wounded, Promethean figure, questions his motives. As the Golem learns to talk and to perform everyday tasks, he comes into contact with the townspeople, with Stoikus (tenor), mourning the loss of his own son, and Miriam (soprano), the Maharal’s wife, whom the Golem desires. Ometh arrives and confronts the Maharal: together with the Golem he could drive evil out of the world; the Maharal angrily dismisses him. When the townspeople meet to rise up against their oppression, the Golem unwittingly interrupts them; after being taunted he kills Stoikus. He is briefly united with Ometh, but the Maharal intervenes, only to discover the murder and what his creation has done....

Article

Joseph  

M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet

Drame mêlé de chants in three acts by Etienne-Nicolas Méhul to a libretto by Alexandre Duval after Genesis xxxvii–xlvi; Paris, Opéra-Comique (Théâtre Feydeau), 17 February 1807.

Although favoured by the pharaoh, Joseph (haute-contre), known in Egypt as Cléophas, misses his family and homeland. When famine brings his brothers there, he grants them his protection and hospitality. They fail to recognize him and this allows Joseph to test whether their remorse over selling him into slavery is genuine. When Ruben (tenor) mentions that their father is nearby, Joseph decides to go to the Israelites’ camp outside Memphis. First he meets Siméon (tenor), now almost mad with feelings of guilt, and becomes convinced of his brother’s repentance. The Israelites’ morning prayers are heard in the distance. Joseph is so overcome by seeing his youngest brother Benjamin (soprano) and then his father Jacob (baritone) again that he almost reveals his identity; but, warned by Utobal (baritone), he has to leave to intercede with the pharaoh: Joseph’s enemies have criticized his generosity towards foreigners. During Joseph’s absence Siméon confesses his crime to Jacob. At first Jacob denounces him and his guilty brothers, but Benjamin and later Joseph (still incognito) plead for them. Jacob begins to relent; Joseph reveals his identity and forgives them. The pharaoh has granted them sanctuary on Joseph’s request, and all thank God for his goodness and mercy....

Article

Elizabeth Forbes

(‘The Polish Jew’)

Conte populaire d’Alsace in three acts by Camille Erlanger to a libretto by Henri Cain and Pierre-Barthélemy Gheusi after Erckmann-Chatrian’s novel of the same title; Paris, Opéra-Comique (Salle Favart), 11 April 1900.

Erlanger’s second opera and first great success, Le Juif polonais, based on the same legend as The Bells, Sir Henry Irving’s favourite drama, was given more than 50 times by the Opéra-Comique in 33 years. Mathis (baritone), the burgomaster haunted by the memory of a murder that he once committed, was created by Victor Maurel, whose highly dramatic performance no doubt accounted for much of the work’s initial success. In the same way that The Bells lost its popularity after Irving’s death, Erlanger’s work, although well crafted and appropriate to the subject, was insufficiently strong to keep the opera in the repertory once the melodramatic text became outmoded. The same subject was used for an opera by Karel Weis....

Article

Hugh Macdonald

(‘The Jewess’)

Opéra in five acts by (Jacques-François-)Fromental (-Elie) Halévy to a libretto by Eugène Scribe ; Paris, Opéra, 23 February 1835.

The first production of La Juive, in 1835, with Cornélie Falcon as Rachel, Julie Dorus-Gras as Princess Eudoxie, Adolphe Nourrit as Eléazar and Nicolas Levasseur as Brogni, was one of the most spectacular ever seen at the Opéra. The Act 1 procession and the Act 3 festival became famous for their splendour. One newspaper thought the procession, with all the leading figures on horseback, was the eighth wonder of the world.

Nothing is missing in this prodigious resurrection of a distant century. The costumes of the warriors, civilians and ecclesiastics are not imitated but reproduced in the smallest detail. The armour is not paste-board, it is real metal. One sees men of iron, men of silver, men of gold! The Emperor is a glittering ingot from head to foot! The Opéra may become a power capable of throwing its armies into the balance of power in Europe....

Article

Salome  

David Murray

Musikdrama in one act by Richard Strauss to Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play; Dresden, Hofoper, 9 December 1905.

After the mildly scandalous success of his second opera, Feuersnot, Strauss needed a new subject. Wolzogen, his collaborator on Feuersnot, worked hopefully at another raffish one-act comedy, drawn this time from Cervantes, but Strauss did nothing with it. Then a young Viennese poet sent him Wilde’s Salomé, proposing to adapt a libretto from it; the composer was cautiously interested (he imagined it, incredibly, as a possible pendant to Feuersnot). Though Wilde’s French original had been a failure in Paris, and in England the play was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, a German version had been well received in Breslau in 1901. Using a new translation, Max Reinhardt staged the play in Berlin the following year with spectacular success. Strauss saw it early in 1903 and swiftly decided to set this Lachmann version of the text as it stood, except for judicious trimming (mostly of subordinate clauses, though also of some marginal dialogue and one or two small roles). He began in earnest as he put the last touches to his ...

Article

Hugh Macdonald

(‘Samson and Delilah’)

Opéra in three acts and four tableaux by Camille Saint-Saëns to a libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire; Weimar, Grossherzogliches Theater, 2 December 1877.

In 1867, two years after composing his first opera, Le timbre d’argent, and with no clear prospect of seeing it staged, Saint-Saëns embarked on an oratorio on the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. The subject was suggested by Voltaire’s libretto Samson for Rameau. He admired Handel and Mendelssohn and was an enthusiastic supporter of the newly flourishing French choral movement. Saint-Saëns later wrote:

A young relative of mine had married a charming young man who wrote verse on the side. I realized that he was gifted and had in facts real talent. I asked him to work with me on an oratorio on a biblical subject. ‘An oratorio!’, he said, ‘no, let’s make it an opera!’, and he began to dig through the Bible while I outlined the plan of the work, even sketching scenes, and leaving him only the versification to do. For some reason I began the music with Act 2, and I played it at home to a select audience who could make nothing of it at all....

Article

A. Dean Palmer

(‘The Templar and the Jewess’)

Grosse romantische Oper in three acts by Heinrich August Marschner to a libretto by Wilhelm August Wohlbrück after various plays, themselves based on Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe; Leipzig, Stadttheater, 22 December 1829.

After reviewing a performance of J. F. von Auffenberg’s play Der Löwe von Kurdistan, based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman, Marschner decided – with his librettist Wohlbrück – to write an opera based on one of Scott’s novels. They chose Ivanhoe. By eliminating non-essential characters and simplifying the plot, Wohlbrück developed the libretto from J. R. Lenz’s play Das Gericht der Templer (Breslau, 7 May 1824), which Lenz had based on one or more of several English plays, particularly W. T. Moncrieff’s Ivanhoe! or, The Jewess (London, 24 January 1820), that were performed in England after the publication of Scott’s book.

Universally considered during the 19th century as Marschner’s most popular opera, Der Templer und die Jüdin...

Article

Tito  

Carl B. Schmidt

(‘Titus’)

Melodramma in three acts by Antonio Cesti to a libretto by Nicolò Beregan ; Venice, Teatro di SS Giovanni e Paolo, 13 February 1666.

Beregan probably formed the outline of his plot from Flavius Josephus’s account of the Jewish War and C. Suetonius Tranquillus’s account of Emperor Titus in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. The opera deals with the future Roman emperor’s conquering of Jerusalem in ad 70, and his subsequent love for the conquered Palestinian princess Berenice. After numerous complications, woven into the plot by a cast of 15 characters, Polemone, whom Berenice has claimed as her brother, is revealed to be her husband, and Titus abandons his quest for love in favour of his former militaristic ways. Three characters, Titus (soprano castrato), Berenice (soprano) and Domitian (soprano castrato), are drawn from history and another, Polemone (tenor), portrayed as the King of Licea, is probably the equivalent of Polemon, the priest-king of Olba in Cilicia. The fictional character Martia Fulvia (soprano) may have been inspired by the historical Marcia Furnilla, daughter of a noble Roman family, whom Titus married but subsequently divorced. The remaining cast of generals, servants, pages and sorceresses remind us of Racine’s famous dictum ‘Toute l’invention consiste à faire quelque chose de rien’....