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Stanley Sadie

Masque or serenata in one (later two) acts by George Frideric Handel to words by John Gay and others; Cannons, summer 1718 (revised version in three acts, incorporating Italian words by Nicola Giuvo, London, King’s Theatre, 10 June 1732).

During the period 1717–20 Handel spent much of his time at Cannons, the seat of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (later Duke of Chandos), at Edgware, a short distance north-west of London. As resident composer, he supplied his patron with church music, principally anthems, and two dramatic works, Esther (the first English oratorio) and Acis and Galatea, which has variously been described as a serenata, a masque, a pastoral or pastoral opera, a ‘little opera’ (in a letter while it was being written), an entertainment and even (incorrectly) an oratorio. Whether or not it was originally fully staged, given in some kind of stylized semi-dramatic form or simply performed as a concert work is uncertain; local tradition holds that it was given in the open air on the terraces overlooking the garden (the recent discovery of piping to supply an old fountain, suitable for the closing scene, might fancifully be invoked as support). It was performed on an unknown date, probably during the summer, in ...


Jeremy Hayes


Italian version: Tragedia in three acts by Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck to a libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi after Euripides; Vienna, Burgtheater, 26 December 1767.

French version: Tragédie opéra in three acts by Gluck to a libretto by Marie François Louis Gand Leblanc, Bailli du Roullet after Calzabigi; Paris, Académie Royale de Musique, 23 April 1776.

The Italian Alceste was the second of Gluck’s three so-called reform operas written with Ranieri de’ Calzabigi (the others were Orfeo ed Euridice and Paride ed Elena) in which a noble simplicity in the action and the music was intended to replace the complicated plots and florid musical style of opera seria. Although Orfeo was the first, it is Alceste that contains, in the first edition of the score, the famous preface in which Gluck and Calzabigi outlined their principles and ideals (see Gluck, Christoph Willibald Ritter von, §6). The opera was a great success; according to Calzabigi 60 performances were given in Vienna. It was choreographed not by Angiolini, the choreographer of ...



Jan Smaczny

Heroic opera in three acts by Antonín Dvořák to a German libretto by Theodor Körner ; Olomouc, Czech Theatre, 10 December 1938 (in Czech).

The plot concerns the English King Alfred (bass), and his bride Alwina (soprano), who is a prisoner of the Danes. In the first act, the general of the triumphant Danes, Harald (tenor), attempts to persuade Alwina to marry him. Another Danish leader, Gothron (baritone), has premonitions of an English victory. Act 2 introduces Alfred and his companion, Sieward (baritone), and concludes with Alfred’s freeing of Alwina. In Act 3 Alfred, with the assistance of the noble Dorset (tenor), wins a victory, and Harald commits suicide.

Dvořák completed Alfred in 1870, but throughout his life, with the possible exception of an occasion in 1874 when he may have shown the score to Smetana, he neglected to draw attention to its existence. This may have been because, alone among his operas, and most of those of his contemporaries, ...


Nigel Burton

Opera in three acts by Isidore De Lara to a libretto by Augustus Henry Glossop Harris and Frederick Edward Weatherly, after Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth; London, Covent Garden, in a French translation by Paul Milliet, 20 July 1893.

The Earl of Leicester (tenor) fears that he will lose the favour of Queen Elizabeth (mezzo-soprano) if she learns of his secret marriage to Amy Robsart (soprano). Amy is therefore kept secluded at Cumnor Hall in the care of Leicester’s wicked retainer Varney (baritone). Her childhood sweetheart Tressilian (tenor), ignorant of her marriage, petitions the Queen for her release. Varney, fearful for his own ambitions, plots Amy’s murder; Leicester arrives at Cumnor to rescue her but, to his horror, she plunges to her death through a hidden trapdoor previously set by Varney.

Amy Robsart is written in De Lara’s early style in which the influence of Massenet predominates. The opera was given at Paris, Boulogne, Monte Carlo and St Petersburg in ...


Erik Levi


Tragedy in five acts by Carl Orff to Sophocles’ drama translated into German by Friedrich Hölderlin; Salzburg, Felsenreitsschule, 9 August 1949.

After the death of Oedipus, King of Thebes, his sons Eteocles and Polyneices were supposed to share the throne. But the brothers quarrelled and Polyneices fled to Argos to organize an army in order to occupy Thebes. The revolt was suppressed when the brothers killed each other. The opera begins as Creon (baritone) succeeds to the throne. He decrees that anyone who contemplates burying Polyneices will be put to death. But Oedipus’s daughter Antigone (dramatic soprano) is determined to accord her brother the true rites of burial. She attempts to enlist the support of her sister Ismene (soprano), but Ismene, fearful of the consequences, tries to discourage Antigone. Antigone ignores her and visits her brother’s corpse alone. As she scatters earth on the body she is seized by soldiers and taken prisoner by Creon. Ismene, ashamed of her former cowardice, admits complicity in the deed and is also imprisoned. Creon’s son Haemon (tenor), to whom Antigone is betrothed, goes to the king to plead for mercy, threatening to kill himself if either of the sisters is put to death. But while Creon releases Ismene he condemns Antigone to solitary confinement. The blind soothsayer Tiresias (tenor) appears and prophesies disaster for the king if he does not release Antigone and give Polyneices an honourable burial. Creon bows to this pressure but is unable to forestall a dreadful sequence of events. Antigone has already hanged herself with her sash and Haemon, clinging to her body, kills himself with his sword. When Creon’s wife Euridice [Eurydice] (contralto) hears this news, she also takes her own life. Creon is now in despair and longs for death, but is unable to effect complete absolution. The final words in the opera are reserved for the Chorus: only in wisdom can there be peace of mind and man should not profane the teachings of the gods....


Nicholas Williams

[ Arden muss sterben ]

Opera in two acts, op.21, by Alexander Goehr to a libretto by Erich Fried (English version by Geoffrey Skelton); Hamburg, Staatsoper, 5 March 1967.

The murder of Arden (bass), a prosperous businessman, is planned by his wife, Alice (mezzo-soprano), and her lover, Mosbie (tenor). Two landowners ruined by Arden, Greene (baritone) and Reede (bass), and two disaffected servants, Susan (soprano) and Michael (tenor), are also involved in the conspiracy. After three bungled attempts, the hired assassins Shakebag (tenor) and Black Will (bass) murder Arden at a reconciliation banquet arranged by him for his so-called friends. In the concluding court scene, Alice and Mosbie admit their guilt, while the others attempt to deny their complicity.

The libretto draws both on Holinshed’s account of the 1551 murder and on the anonymous 16th-century Arden of Faversham, translating its theme of guilt from the middle-class, Christian context of the original into the contemporary world of Brechtian epic theatre. The cuckolding of Arden, which is the source of discord and retribution, becomes no more than another incident in the game of power and possession played by all the characters. And in the courtroom scene, justice is shown to be unrelated not only to moral precept, but to any precepts whatsoever apart from those of self-interested gain – in which, by virtue of the intervention of Arden’s neighbour, Mrs Bradshaw (contralto), the audience also shares....


David Murray

(‘Ariadne on Naxos’)

Opera by Richard Strauss to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal , existing in two versions: ‘ Ariadne I’, in one act, to be played after a German version of Molière ’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, and ‘ Ariadne II’, in a prologue and one act; I, Stuttgart, Hoftheater (Kleines Haus), 25 October 1912, and II, Vienna, Hofoper, 4 October 1916.

In early 1911, while Der Rosenkavalier – the first wholly purpose-built collaboration between Hofmannsthal and Strauss – enjoyed its triumphant first performances, ideas for three new projects came to them. One was to thank Max Reinhardt for his productions of Wilde’s Salomé and Hofmannsthal’s Elektra (which had inspired Strauss’s third and fourth operas), and unofficially of Der Rosenkavalier itself, by turning a Molière comedy into a German words-and-music piece for his Berlin company. Another was for a half-hour chamber-opera on the Ariadne myth, in which commedia dell’arte characters would collide with 18th-century operatic stereotypes, and the third was for a ‘sombre’ but ‘fantastic’ opera ...



Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson

[Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus]

Opera in three acts by Thomas Claytonto a libretto by Tommaso Stanzani, translated by Peter Anthony Motteux; London, Drury Lane, 16 January 1705.

The opera opens with the hero Ormondo (countertenor) foiling an assassination attempt on Queen Arsinoe (soprano) instigated by Dorisbe (soprano), a princess who holds the Queen responsible for her father’s death. Arsinoe and Ormondo fall in love, but Dorisbe is in love with Ormondo and is herself loved by Feraspe (bass), the captain of the Queen’s Guard. After much misunderstanding and jealousy, a duel between Ormondo and Feraspe, a second murderous attack on Arsinoe, a prison scene with Ormondo in chains in which Arsinoe realizes that he is of royal birth and a suicide attempt by Dorisbe the opera ends with Arsinoe about to marry Ormondo and the forgiven Dorisbe united with Feraspe. Light relief is provided by Ormondo’s servant Delbo (bass) and Dorisbe’s old nurse (contralto)....


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....



Raymond A. Barr


Opera in five acts by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz to his own libretto (with C. F. Cramer) after Jean Racine ; Rheinsberg, French Theatre of Prince Heinrich, 1785.

Athaliah has usurped the throne after the death of her son Ahaziah and has massacred all the members of the royal house except her grandson Joash, who was rescued by an aunt. The opera opens after Athaliah has been ruling for seven years and as supporters of Joash are conspiring to elevate him to his rightful place on the throne. Athaliah is assassinated during the final struggle and Joash is crowned King of Judah. Schulz wrote his opera, in French, in 1785 for performance at the court, and revised it the following year for the French Theatre in Berlin. The work was musically successful but Schulz’s dedication of it to Princess Amalie (with its unfortunate subject of regicide) misfired, leading to his resignation....


Francesco Bussi

(‘In the Lower Port’)

Lyric drama in three acts by Nicola Spinelli to a libretto by Eugenio Checchi (‘Tom’) after Goffredo Cognetti’s play Scene napoletane; in German, translated by Ludwig Hartmann and Otto Hess as Am untern Hafen, Cologne, Stadttheater, 18 April 1894 (first Italian performance, Rome, Teatro Costanzi, 11 March 1895).

The action takes place in the via Acquaquilia, in the port area of Naples, among camorristi (a mafia-type secret society). Se’ Maria (dramatic soprano) and Ciccillo o’ Luciano, a camorristo (baritone), were betrothed, but almost at once he fell in love with Carmela, against whom the jealous Maria made false accusations which led to Carmela’s early death and Ciccillo’s imprisonment; Maria then married another man. Now she feels remorse (‘Se è ver, Ciccillo, che un giorno solo’), but Ciccillo, full of hatred, swears to avenge himself by reducing Maria to poverty and ruining her children, Luigino (tenor) and Sesella (soprano). In Act 2, the ...



William Ashbrook

[ Betly, ossia La capanna svizzera (‘Betly, or The Swiss Chalet’)]

Dramma giocoso, originally in one act, later revised in two, by Gaetano Donizetti to his own libretto after Eugène Scribe and Mélesville ’s [A.-H.-J. Duveyrier’s] libretto for Adolphe Adam’s Le châlet, ultimately derived from Goethe’s Singspiel Jery und Bätely (1780); Naples, Teatro Nuovo, 21 August 1836 (revised version, Naples, probably Teatro del Fondo, 29 September 1837).

Daniele (tenor) arrives at Betly’s chalet, delighted to have what purports to be a letter from her in which she agrees to marry him. In fact, village jokers wrote the letter, taking advantage of his simplicity; Betly (soprano) declares she knows nothing of it and asserts her independence (aria, ‘In questo semplice modesto asilo’). Her brother, Max (baritone), a corporal who has not been home for years, decides not to tell Betly who he is, and, favourably impressed with Daniele, determines to assist him in his wooing of Betly. Max’s plan involves lodging his troops in her house and provoking Daniele to a duel. This stratagem achieves the double purpose of causing Daniele to show some spirit and of persuading Betly that her independence has left her unprotected; she accepts Daniele in marriage (arias, ‘Se crudele il cor mostrai’ end ‘Ah no! non posso esprimere’)....


Tibor Tallián


Opera in three acts (seven pictures) by Sándor Szokolay to his own libretto after Federico García Lorca ’:s Bodas de sangre; Budapest, Hungarian State Opera House, 31 October 1964

After a short introduction by the female chorus, the first act develops in concise, elliptical scenes. The Bride groom (tenor) leaves for the family vineyard. His Mother (contralto), who has lost both husband and elder son as victims to village hostilities, follows his every step with foreboding. She learns from a neighbour (soprano) that the bride of her son has been engaged before to Leonardo from the family of Felix, responsible for her past tragedies. The mere mention of this family name sends her into a paroxysm of fear. The Wife (soprano) and Mother-in-law (contralto) of Leonardo sing a lullaby to his son. Leonardo (baritone) enters, but soon leaves as he is met with reproaches for having been seen ‘at the other end of the plain’ (where, we surmise, his former betrothed lives). The mother and the bridegroom come to ask for the hand of the Bride (soprano). After they leave, the Maid (soprano) tells the bride about Leonardo’s nightly visits to the premises. The bride cannot conceal her ecstasy as she catches sight of him again through the window....


Richard Taruskin

(‘The Heroic Warriors’)

Opera-farce in five acts (often designated the ‘first Russian operetta’) by Alexander Porfir’yevich Borodin to a libretto by Viktor Alexandrovich Krïlov ; Moscow, Bol’shoy Theatre, 6/18 November 1867.

The music, about one-quarter original and the rest pastiche, was orchestrated with the assistance of F. F. Büchner, the Bol’shoy’s first flautist, and E. N. Merten, the assistant conductor, who conducted the first performance.

The libretto, by the Russian translator of Orphée aux enfers, is an Offenbachian send-up of Russian heroic legends and chronicles and their stereotyped operatic offshoots, chiefly Verstovsky’s Askold’s Grave and Serov’s recent success Rogneda (but not even Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila was spared). The pastiche component of the music was drawn from a wide variety of sources: Offenbach (Barbe-bleu, Les bavards, La belle Hélène), Meyerbeer (Robert le diable, Le prophète), Rossini (Il barbiere, Semiramide), Verdi (Ernani), Hérold (Zampa...


Nigel Burton

Grand opera in three acts by Michael William Balfe to a libretto by Alfred Bunn after Joseph Mazilier’s and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges ’ ballet pantomime La gypsy, based on Miguel de Cervantes ’s short story La gitanilla; London, Drury Lane, 27 November 1843.

The setting is Pressburg (Bratislava), Austria, in the 18th century (not Poland, as is often stated). In Act 1 Thaddeus, a rebel Polish nobleman (tenor), has taken refuge with a band of gypsies led by Devilshoof (bass) to avoid detection. He saves the life of the six-year-old Arline (soprano), daughter of Count Arnheim, Governor of Pressburg (baritone). The delighted Count invites Thaddeus and Devilshoof to a banquet at his castle; they go, but refuse to drink a toast to the Emperor’s health. Devilshoof is imprisoned; Thaddeus is released because he saved the child. Devilshoof soon escapes, however, and to revenge himself on the Count he steals Arline and hides her among the gypsies....


[Braniboři v Čechách]

Opera in three acts by Bedřich Smetana to a libretto by Karel Sabina; Prague, Provisional Theatre, 5 January 1866.

Smetana’s first opera was written for the opera competition sponsored by Count Jan Harrach to provide the recently-instituted Czech Provisional Theatre with new Czech operatic repertory. Since no entries were received by the deadline of 30 September 1862 it was extended by a year, thus allowing Smetana, who had returned from Sweden in 1861, to enter. The libretto that he acquired from Karel Sabina in February 1862 was in two acts and had to be revised to suit the three-act format stipulated by Harrach. Smetana completed the full score of Act 1 by 8 January 1863, Act 2 by 16 February and Act 3 by 23 April. The judges took three years to reach a decision about the four entries submitted, thus denying the opera a public showing in the theatre until ...


Péter P. Várnai

(‘That’s War’)

Opera in one act by Emil Petrovics to a libretto by Miklós Hubay; Budapest, Opera, 11 March 1962 (previously broadcast, Hungarian Broadcasting Corporation, 27 August 1961).

The scene is the flat of a middle-class family in Budapest during the German occupation in summer 1944. The Husband (baritone), an engineer in a war factory, and the Wife (soprano) hide their friend, the Deserter (tenor), in their home. In the short prologue the Janitress (mezzo-soprano) and Vizavi (‘vis-á-vis’; tenor) are engaged in a conversation: they know almost everything about the tenants. Vizavi is an invalid in a wheelchair who uses his binoculars to peep into the tenants’ homes while the Janitress, whose husband and sons fell in the war, harbours a fanatical hatred towards everybody who is young and alive.

A conversation between the couple and the Deserter is interrupted by three Officers from the war factory (tenor, baritone and bass). They take the Husband to the factory, so that the Third Officer, a brutal man, may be alone with the Wife, to whom he has taken a fancy. The Wife fends off his attempt at courtship by letting his dispatch case fall from the balcony. The Officer leaves and the Deserter emerges from the inner room. A love duet between him and the Wife is interrupted by the appearance of the Janitress; the suspicious old woman returns with a picklock, catches the lovers kissing and calls the patrol. Meanwhile the Husband arrives home with the Officers. To save the situation he accuses his friend of being his Wife’s lover and orders him to leave their home. Everything goes well until the Janitress appears with the Deserter’s uniform. The patrol leads away the Husband and the Deserter and soon after the sound of a salvo is heard. The Third Officer remarks ‘C’est la guerre’ while the Wife jumps from the balcony. In the epilogue, Vizavi and the Janitress search for new victims....


William Ashbrook

(‘The Night Bell’)

Melodramma giocoso in one act by Gaetano Donizetti to a text by the composer after a French vaudeville, La sonnette de nuit, by Brunswick, Mathieu-Barthélemy Troin and Victor Lhérie; Naples, Teatro Nuovo, 1 June 1836.

An elderly pharmacist, Don Annibale Pistacchio (buffo bass), is celebrating his marriage to Serafina (soprano). Attending the party is Enrico (baritone), who has been in love with Serafina himself and plots to discomfit Don Annibale on his wedding night. Relying on the legal requirement that a pharmacist must answer his bell at any hour of the night, Enrico proceeds to assume a series of disguises to keep Don Annibale otherwise occupied. First he comes as a French dandy, then as an opera singer out of voice, and last as a querulous old man with an endless prescription. Rid of this patient at last, Annibale starts upstairs, only to set off the fireworks that Enrico had obligingly planted. The ensuing uproar brings out the partygoers, now gathered to speed Annibale on his way to Rome, where he must see about an inheritance. Enrico wishes him a lifetime of nights as happy as the one just past, a sentiment enthusiastically endorsed by all but Don Annibale....


Erik Levi

(‘Songs of Beuren’)

‘Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicus’ in three scenes by Carl Orff to 13th-century Latin and German poems by the monks of Benediktbeuern; Frankfurt, Städtische Bühnen, 8 June 1937.

Orff’s best-known composition is more frequently encountered in the concert hall than in the opera house, but it was originally conceived for the stage. The work, divided into three main sections which deal with nature, the tavern and love, is framed by an imposing opening and concluding chorus in praise of Fortune, the goddess of fate. In the first section entitled ‘Im Frühling’ and ‘Uf dem Anger’ the awakening of spring is depicted in a simple rising unison melody in the chorus, and the ensuing baritone solo praises the overwhelming power of love. There follows a series of dances and short choral movements set in medieval German evoking a peasant spring feast. In the second section, ‘In taberna’, the theatrical element of the work is manifested in a series of parodies – a baritone solo of exaggerated pathos in which the drunkard seems oblivious of the perilous condition of his soul, the grotesque falsetto singing of a Swan (tenor) which is being roasted, the inebriated psalmody of the Abbot (baritone) from Fool’s paradise and an orgiastic hymn to earthly enjoyment sung by the male chorus. The final section, ‘Cour d’Amours’ and ‘Blanziflor et Helena’, provides a dramatic contrast in extolling the pleasures of refined courtly love. Individual numbers include a baritone solo in which the lover seeks to make his wooing more seductive by indulging in a brilliant coloratura vocal line, a coquettish song for soprano which seeks to kindle a young man’s desire, a wooing song for double chorus and finally a chorus of Dionysiac intensity in praise of Venus....


Renato Chiesa

Opera in four acts by Riccardo Zandonai to a libretto by Maurice Vaucaire (translated into Italian and supplemented by Carlo Zangarini) after Pierre Louÿs’s novel La femme et le pantin; Milan, Teatro Dal Verme, 14 October 1911.

The opera has six scenes: the Factory, Intermezzo in the street, Conchita’s house, the ‘Baile’ (a small cabaret theatre), the Gate, Mateo’s house. Louÿs’s perverse and sensual Conchita (soprano), a more ambivalent version of Carmen, teases her lover Mateo (tenor) in a series of disturbing episodes but never yields to him until the end, after a severe beating. The other characters are secondary figures, set in a Spanish atmosphere which is also vividly evoked by the orchestral writing, the most attractive aspect of the opera, while the vocal parts are often in verismo style. This was the composer’s second important opera, after Il grillo del focolare, and his first real success; he returned to Spanish themes in two later operas, ...