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Brian W. Pritchard

(‘Hadrian in Syria’)

Dramma per musica in three acts by Antonio Caldara to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio ( see Adriano in Siria above), with ballet music by Nicola Matteis; Vienna, Hoftheater (Teatro Grande), 9 November 1732.

Caldara’s 13th opera for the name-day celebrations of the Habsburg emperor Charles VI has the Roman emperor Adriano [Hadrian] (tenor) as its nominal hero. The plot deals with his amorous dalliance with Emirena (soprano), a captive Parthian princess, his arrogant dismissal of Farnaspe [Pharnaspes] (alto), Emirena’s lover, and his deception of his wife Sabina (soprano). In the lieto fine Metastasio’s allusion to the incorruptible position of the Holy Roman Emperor is obvious, as Hadrian rises above temptation to impart further dignity to his imperial role.

Caldara’s setting, however, emphasizes the three characters most affected by Hadrian’s illicit desires. Hadrian himself is drawn rather shallowly in arias that (apart from the tender ‘Dal labbro che t’accende’, 1.i) are mostly stereotyped but superficially impressive gestures of rage and revenge, such as ‘Tutti nemici’ (2.ix). The two minor characters, Osroa [Osroes] (tenor), Emirena’s father, and Aquilio [Aquilius] (bass), Hadrian’s treacherous confidant, likewise react conventionally to their situations, although the former’s ‘Sprezzo il furor del vento’ (1.iii) and the latter’s ‘Saggio guerriero antico’ (2.v) include clever pictorialisms. In contrast, Caldara acords Emirena, Sabina and Pharnaspes a series of intimate arias that capture moods of estrangement, abandonment and desolation, as well as reconciliation and optimism, and maintain a level of lyricism rarely surpassed in his other operas. Sensitive scorings, with relatively few contrapuntal devices in the accompaniments, enhance the emotional tension, especially in Pharnaspes’ ‘Doppo un tuo sguardo’ (1.v) and Sabina’s ‘Numi sì giuste siete’ (1.xi)....


Dale E. Monson

(‘Hadrian in Syria’)

Opera seria in three acts by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio ( see Adriano in Siria above); Naples, Teatro S Bartolomeo, 25 October 1734.

In May 1734 the Kingdom of Naples was recaptured from the Austrian Habsburgs by Charles Bourbon (later Charles III) of Spain. To celebrate the birthday of the queen mother, Elisabeth Farnese, the Teatro S Bartolomeo staged a new work by Pergolesi, Adriano in Siria. This was the third of the four opere serie written by Pergolesi, and his first to a libretto by Metastasio. For Pergolesi the libretto was much altered. Of Metastasio’s 27 original aria texts, only ten were retained: ten substitute arias and a new duet were inserted, and several alterations to the recitatives were made to accommodate those changes. Most of these alterations can be attributed to the magnificent cast hired by the new king, with his typically Spanish emphasis on theatrical splendour. Caffarelli was the primo uomo; he received all new texts, and the position of some of them was shifted to give him a more prominent role: his character sings at the end of the first two acts. Caffarelli’s music is the most careful, extensive and lyrical in the opera, and includes the particularly exquisite ‘Lieto così tal volta’, with obbligato oboe, and ‘Torbido in volto e nero’, for double orchestra (this aria must have been particularly effective since it was later borrowed, without change, for ...


Stephen C. Fisher

(‘Hadrian in Syria’)

Dramma per musica in three acts by Pasquale Anfossi to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio ( see Adriano in Siria above); Padua, Teatro Nuovo, June 1777.

The libretto is much altered from the 1752 version, incorporating some elements from the 1732 original but giving the three Parthian characters – Osroa [Osroes], Emirena and Farnaspe [Pharnaspes] – greater prominence. Anfossi used a substantial amount of accompanied recitative and he wrote a trio for Emirena, Pharnaspes and Osroes to conclude Act 2. Act 3, greatly shortened in accordance with the conventions of the period, ends with simple recitative. Osroes and Aquilio [Aquilius] (whose role is cut substantially) are written for tenors, while the four lovers are soprano roles. Apart from a few cavatinas, the arias retain the textual structure of da capo arias but are through-composed. Many are in a sonata-form design in which the A sections constitute the exposition and recapitulation and the ...


Bertil H. van Boer

[ Aeneas i Cartago, eller Dido och Aeneas (‘Aeneas in Carthage, or Dido and Aeneas’)]

Lyric tragedy in a prologue and five acts by Joseph Martin Kraus to a libretto by Johan Henrik Kellgren after an outline by Gustavus based on Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan’s play Didon; Stockholm, Royal Opera, 18 November 1799.

The opera begins with a prologue depicting winds chained to a rock in the sea. Eol [Aeolus] (bass) refuses to release them until asked by Juno (soprano) to allow them to sink the escaping Trojan fleet. After a storm, Neptun [Neptune] (bass) calms the waves and Aeneas (tenor) is cast ashore on the coast of Carthage. His mother Venus (soprano) directs him to seek aid from Queen Dido (soprano). In Act 1, she welcomes the strangers and asks that they help dedicate a new temple in homage to Juno, who refuses to accept it. In Act 2 a hunt is interrupted by a storm that drives Dido and Aeneas to a cave for shelter; they pledge their love, only to be interrupted by the ghost of Dido’s first husband, Siché [Sychaeus] (bass), who warns of their impending doom. In Act 3, the Numidian King Jarbas (tenor or baritone) arrives disguised as his own ambassador to ask for Dido’s hand; he is rejected and vows revenge. Aeneas and Dido then appear before the temple of Juno to be married, but an earthquake occurs, followed by the appearance of Ära (soprano), who orders Aeneas to leave Carthage. As the Trojans prepare to set sail, Dido unsuccessfully asks Aeneas to stay. Her servant Clelié [Cloelia] (soprano) then arrives with news of the approaching Numidian army. In Act 5 a battle takes place in which Aeneas slays Jarbas and defeats the Numidians before leaving Carthage. Dido, at first encouraged by his victory, sees his ships departing and immolates herself. The goddess Iris (soprano) arrives and tells the Carthaginians that Dido has been apotheosized. Finally Jupiter (baritone) receives Dido in Olympus....


Thérèse Radic

Opera in one act, op.99, by Felix Werder to a libretto by Leonard Radic; Sydney, Opera House, 14 March 1974.

Lady Celia (soprano) sets a trap for her apparently unfaithful husband, Sir Reginald (tenor), the Australian High Commissioner, who spends too much time with Olivia Tomas (mezzo-soprano), the wife of the South American Ambassador. Lady Celia plans an opera performance to celebrate the Queen’s birthday and offers Sir Reginald and Olivia roles. When the opera begins, it becomes clear that the plot is a slice of Sir Reginald’s own life. He tries to break out of the scene but cannot. When Olivia shoots him as rehearsed, the ‘dummy’ gun turns out to be real and Sir Reginald collapses. Neither woman is responsible: Gregory Jones (baritone), the Second Secretary, loaded the gun knowing that it would be fired at his superior, a man who had long denied him promotion and had incessantly ridiculed him....


Steven Huebner

(‘The African Maid’)

Grand opera in five acts by Giacomo Meyerbeer to a libretto by Eugène Scribe ; Paris, Opéra, 28 April 1865.

The genesis of L’Africaine is more complex than that of any other Meyerbeer opera. A first contract between Meyerbeer and Scribe for the production of the libretto was signed in May 1837; the point of departure for the plot seems to have been ‘Le mancenillier’, a poem by Millevoye about a young girl who sits under a tree that emits poisonous fragrances and is rescued by her lover. Doubts about the viability of the libretto, and the illness of Cornélie Falcon, for whom the title role was intended, caused Meyerbeer to abandon the project in favour of Le prophète in summer 1838. He returned to L’Africaine at the end of 1841, when the draft of Le prophète was almost complete. L’Africaine was set aside when Meyerbeer completed a draft in 1843...


Thérèse Radic

Opera in one act by Felix Werder to his own libretto after Aeschylus’ play, translated by Gilbert Murray; Melbourne, Grant Street Theatre, 1 June 1977 (broadcast of earlier version, The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, ABC, 1967).

The plot follows precisely the words of Gilbert Murray’s translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. On his return from the Trojan wars, King Agamemnon of Mycenae (bass) is greeted by his wife Clytemnestra (soprano) and her lover, Aegisthus (countertenor), who together plot the king’s murder. Warned of the plot against him by the prophetess Cassandra (soprano), a princess of Troy and concubine of Agamemnon, the king ignores all advice. The lovers kill him, fulfilling the destiny predicted not only for themselves but for their doomed House of Atreus.

Composed in 1967, the opera, then titled The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, was performed for a radio broadcast in the same year; the composer reworked and retitled the piece shortly thereafter. Through-composed in 25 sections and serially constructed, with the first 12-note row having strong tonal implications, ...


Marita P. McClymonds

(‘Agesilaus, King of Sparta’)

Opera seria in three acts by Gaetano Andreozzi to a libretto by Francesco Ballani; Venice, Teatro S Benedetto, Carnival 1788.

Leucade [Leotychidas] (soprano castrato) is taken prisoner in an uprising against Agesilaus (soprano castrato), initiated by the Congiutati under the leadership of Leotychidas’ father, Lisandro [Lysander] (tenor), a military hero and supposed friend of the king. Outraged by his perfidy, Erissa (soprano), Queen of Paphlagonia and Leotychidas’ betrothed, condemns him to death and offers her hand to the king, much to the dismay of Lysander’s daughter, Aglatide (soprano), who loves the king. When Lysander attempts to take power Leotychidas interposes himself between his father’s sword and the king, thereby earning clemency for both of them. Based on a new libretto by the young Roman author Ballani, the opera enjoyed half a dozen revivals in the years before the Republic. Though still an ‘aria’ opera, with ensembles to end Acts 1 and 2 and a chorus in each act, it contains a few novelties: an aria interrupted by a second character, and a short quartet (‘cavatina a quattro’) when the captured Leotychidas is brought in. When it was revised for Florence in the autumn of ...


Anselm Gerhard

Grosse historisch-romantische Oper in three acts by Gaspare Spontini to a libretto by Ernst Raupach; Berlin, Königliches Opernhaus, 12 June 1829.

Although banished by Emperor Henry VI (baritone), Heinrich (tenor), son of the Emperor’s Guelph opponent Henry the Lion, is in Mainz incognito in the year 1194 to win his beloved Agnes (soprano), a cousin of the Emperor. He is arrested; however, he not only escapes from prison but also secretly marries Agnes and triumphs over his rival, King Philip of France (baritone). The angry Emperor is finally persuaded by the imperial knights and the intercession of his brother Philip (tenor) and Agnes’s mother Irmengard (soprano) to bow to the triumph of love.

Spontini worked for many years on this, his last opera, which he considered his major work. Only the first act was ready for performance at the scheduled première on 28 May 1827. After extensive revisions of the completed work, which was first performed on ...



Scott L. Balthazar

Dramma semiserio per musica in two acts by Ferdinando Paer to a libretto by Luigi Buonavoglia after Filippo Casari’s play Agnese di Fizendry; Parma, Villa Scotti, Teatro Ponte d’Attaro, October 1809.

Seven years before the opera takes place, Agnese (soprano) has driven her father Uberto (bass) to madness by marrying Ernesto (tenor), whom Uberto despises. Confined to an asylum and believing Agnese to be dead, Uberto has been ignored by his daughter until Ernesto’s infidelity causes her to seek him out again. With the help of Don Pasquale (bass), superintendent of the asylum, and Don Girolamo (tenor), her father’s caretaker, she gradually convinces him that she is still alive. Uberto finally recognizes her, and he recovers his sanity completely when she performs a song that she often sang to him before their estrangement; Agnese forgives Ernesto after he repents of his indiscretions. The kindly Don Pasquale, himself a contented father, and his loyal daughter Carlotta (soprano) serve as dramatic foils to Uberto and Agnese and provide comic relief....


Robert Hoskins

[The Agreeable Surprise, or The Secret Enlarged]

Comic afterpiece, op.16, in two acts by Samuel Arnold to a libretto by John O’Keeffe; London, Little Theatre in the Haymarket, 4 September 1781.

This opera, which played for 200 performances over the rest of the century, chiefly owed its popularity to the novelty of the acting, especially that of John Edwin as Lingo (baritone), the schoolmaster-turned-butler who is continually misquoting Latin tags. The plot is a parable of rustic virtue and innocence set against the deceptions of the town; tuneful strophic airs are appropriate in the representation of comic country characters and Arnold’s score has some good examples. Lingo’s ‘Amo, amas, I love a lass’ became famous as a student song....


Anthony Hicks

Drama per musica in three acts by George Frideric Handel to a libretto by Vincenzo Grimani ; Venice, Teatro S Giovanni Gristostomo, 26 December 1709.

Handel’s second and last opera written in Italy, Agrippina effectively established his international reputation. According to Mainwaring’s Memoirs of the Life of … Handel (1760) it was performed 27 times (not an unusual run for the main opera of the Venetian carnival) and was enthusiastically received with cries of ‘Viva il caro Sassone!’. The original cast included Margherita Durastanti (a former colleague from Rome) in the title role, Diamante Maria Scarabelli as Poppaea, Antonio Francesco Carli as Claudius, Francesca Vanini as Otho and her husband Giuseppe Maria Boschi as Pallas. Nero and Narcissus were sung by the castratos Valeriano Pellegrini and Giuliano Albertini. Elena Croce (listed as the Agrippina in one MS source) may have replaced Durastanti in some performances. The opera was subjected to revision before performance and possibly during its initial run: there are significant differences between Handel’s autograph and the printed wordbook of ...


David Murray

(‘The Egyptian Helen’)

Oper in two acts by Richard Strauss to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal; Dresden, Staatsoper, 6 June 1928 (revised version, Salzburg, Festspielhaus, 14 August 1933).

After Strauss completed Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1917 there was a long hiatus in his operatic partnership with Hofmannsthal. In the early 1920s Hofmannsthal made abortive sketches for a Semiramis libretto (which Strauss had yearned for since Elektra) and on the Danae myth (left for Joseph Gregor to realize 17 years later); but among several classical candidates they agreed at last upon Helen. Strauss saw her as a role for Maria Jeritza, their original Ariadne and Empress, who had first entranced him in the title role of Offenbach’s La belle Hélène. He and Hofmannsthal assured each other that this opera would be buoyant and sparkling in three acts with ballet-interludes, much spoken dialogue and light arioso. But the Helen who fascinated the writer came from a more sophisticated legend, a poetical conjecture by Stesichorus (...



Roger Parker

Opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni after a scenario by Auguste Mariette; Cairo, Opera House, 24 December 1871.

During the late 1860s the search for suitable librettos began to cause Verdi increasing problems. One of his most active helpers was the French librettist and impresario Camille Du Locle, with whom Verdi had collaborated in the making of Don Carlos. Du Locle sent Verdi a stream of possible subjects covering a wide variety of genres: from comic plots that might have continued the manner of Un ballo in maschera to large-scale topics suitable for conversion into grand opera. But Verdi became more and more difficult to please, finding the comic subjects structurally or temperamentally unsuitable, while often complaining of the ‘patchwork’ quality of grand opera, its inherent lack of coherence. The breakthrough came in the early months of 1870, when Du Locle sent Verdi a scenario by the archaeologist and Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, based on an invented story set in Egyptian antiquity. Verdi had the previous year refused to supply an inaugural hymn as part of the celebrations to open the Suez Canal; but he accepted this new Egyptian idea – which was to open the new Cairo Opera House – almost immediately, appointing as librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, his collaborator in the revised ...


Richard Langham Smith

(‘The Young Eagle’). Drame musical in five acts by Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert to a libretto by Henri Cain after Edmond Rostand’s play; Monte Carlo, Opéra, 10 March 1937.

It was the first of two stage works by Honegger and Ibert (the other being an operetta, Les petites Cardinal). Apparently after each composer had separately refused involvement in L’aiglon, they were brought together through the breakdown of a car and agreed to collaborate, Honegger contributing the central three acts. Its potentially serious subject – a war where the Duc de Reichstadt, Napoleon’s son (nicknamed ‘L’aiglon’; soprano), is torn between his Austrian roots and his French allegiances – is treated lightly. Military strategies are planned with toy soldiers, and Act 3 is a ball which introduces characters from the commedia dell’arte. Ibert’s pastiches of waltzes and of 18th-century music are here given full rein and both composers seem to have fulfilled the commission (from the impresario Raoul Gunsbourg) for ‘music easily accessible to the public’....


William Ashbrook

(‘The Tutor in a Jam’)

Melodramma giocoso in two acts by Gaetano Donizetti to a libretto by Jacopo Ferretti after Giovanni Giraud’s L’ajo nell’imbarazzo (1807, Rome); Rome, Teatro Valle, 4 February 1824 (revised as Don Gregorio, Naples, Teatro Nuovo, 11 June 1826).

This was the first sustained success of Donizetti’s career. A father, Marchese Giulio (baritone), having been maltreated by a woman, insists that his two sons grow up without knowing any females. Their tutor, Don Gregorio (buffo bass), vainly tries to persuade the boys to follow this edict. The elder, Enrico (tenor), however, secretly married to Gilda (soprano) for a year, has fathered a son; the younger, Pipetto (tenor), is smitten by an aged serving-woman, Leonarda (mezzo-soprano). Anxious to acknowledge his bride, Enrico tries to enlist Don Gregorio’s help, producing Gilda and the baby to strengthen his arguments. Returning home inopportunely, the Marchese learns the truth about his sons, and sings a scena and aria expressing his fury and his sorrow. Hearing his decision to disinherit Enrico in favour of Pipetto, Gilda threatens to kill herself and the baby. The Marchese relents, acknowledges Enrico’s marriage and, dismissing Leonarda, sends Pipetto off on a tour of Europe....


Tim Page

Opera in three acts by Philip Glass to a libretto by the composer, Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel and Richard Riddell; Stuttgart, Staatsoper, 24 March 1984.

Glass has called Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten a trilogy of ‘portrait’ operas. From a purely dramatic standpoint such a grouping makes sense, although all of the composer’s later operas bear closer musical resemblance to Satyagraha (1980) than they do to the sui generis Einstein on the Beach (1976). In Satyagraha Glass developed his own distinctive mutation of ‘traditional’ opera and the works which have followed are cast in a related musical mould.

Akhnaten opens in 1875 bc in Egypt. On the death of his father, Akhnaten (counter-tenor) is crowned as the new King Amenhotep IV. Immediately he abolishes the Amon traditions of his father, deposing Amon priests, and proposes instead the monotheistic worship of Aten. He builds a temple, Akhetaten, in honour of Aten, and refuses to practise polygamy, preferring to remain true to his wife, Nefertiti. As he becomes increasingly isolated from his people by his preoccupations, the Amon priests incite the people to overthrow him. Akhnaten and his family are left roaming the ruined Akhetaten, mourning the passing of their epoch....


David Osmond-Smith

(‘In the bright sunshine heavy with love’)

Azione scenica in two acts by Luigi Nono to a libretto by the composer and Yury Lyubimov after texts by Bertolt Brecht , Tania Bunke, Fidel Castro, Ernesto Che Guevara, Georgy Dimitrov, Maxim Gorky, Antonio Gramsci, Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Louise Michel, Cesare Pavese, Arthur Rimbaud, Celia Sanchez, Haydée Santamaria and popular sources; Milan, Teatro Lirico, 4 April 1975 (revised, definitive version, Milan, Teatro Lirico, 11 February 1978).

Each half of this work brings together texts and images that gravitate around a central theme: in the first half, the Paris Commune, in the second, the Russian revolt of 1905. The two themes echo and complement each other. Both revolts were crushed, yet both have served to inspire subsequent struggles for social justice. Central to both halves is the role played by women within those struggles.

Act 1 charts the progress of the Commune with images taken from Brecht’s Tage der Commune...


Arnold Whittall

Comic opera in three acts, op.39, by Benjamin Britten to a libretto by eric Crozier, after Guy de Maupassant’s short story Le rosier de Madame Husson; Glyndebourne, 20 June 1947.

After the stormy inception of Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells, Britten and Eric Crozier were among those who decided to launch a new, independent and progressive opera company. The English Opera Group was first associated with Glyndebourne, but this relationship gave rise to problems (connected with touring The Rape of Lucretia), and in the early days of 1947 the fully independent English Opera Group was finally established. Even so, Britten’s second chamber opera was first performed, under his direction, at Glyndebourne, alongside a revival of Lucretia, with Peter Pears in the title role, Joan Cross as Lady Billows and a supporting cast including Nancy Evans and Margaret Ritchie. But Britten and his friends were now determined to establish their own centre for performance. The Aldeburgh Festival was set up, and ...


Curtis Price

Opera in three acts by Luis Grabu to a libretto by John Dryden ; London, Dorset Garden Theatre, early June 1685.

In 1680–81 the reign of Charles II was gravely threatened by the Exclusion Crisis, an attempt by certain members of Parliament to block the succession of his brother, James, Duke of York, a Roman Catholic. With the defeat of the Exclusionists and the foiling of plots to assassinate him, Charles II requested ‘something at least like an Opera’ to celebrate his deliverance and the continuation of the Stuart line. The actor-manager Thomas Betterton was despatched to Paris in 1683 with instructions ‘to carry over the Opera’, that is, Jean-Baptiste Lully and members of the Académie Royale de Musique. When this proved impracticable, Betterton returned with Luis Grabu, former Master of the King’s Music, who had been living in exile in Paris since 1679.

Apparently misunderstanding the king’s request, John Dryden, the poet laureate, wrote a play in blank verse, ‘adorn’d with Scenes, Machines, Songs and Dances’, that is, ...