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Marita P. McClymonds

[Troja] (‘The Destruction of Troy’)

Opera seria in three acts by Michele Mortellari to a libretto by Mattia Verazi; Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 1 September 1778.

One of three operas based on texts by Verazi for the opening of La Scala, Troia distrutta was designed to exploit the spectacular capabilities of the new theatre. After an introductory Allegro the curtain opens on a temple scene; an ensemble with chorus functions as the Andante of the sinfonia; the second Allegro, a sinfonia strepitosa, is heard as the earth trembles and lightning flashes from a sacred cavern. Paride [Paris] (alto castrato), Prince of Troy, has captured Elena [Helen] (soprano) and brought her to Troy from Greece, where she was promised to King Menelaus. Cassandra, sister of Paris, warns that his actions will bring ill-fortune to Troy, which their brother Deifebo [Deiphobus] (tenor) governs. Creusa (soprano) leads the priestesses of Pallas in a solo with chorus lamenting the fruits of love’s madness, ‘Dagli amorosi lacci’. A terrible spectre appears and a trio with choral response closes the scene. The finale of Act 1 spans four scenes, in which the terrified Trojans react to the battle with the Greeks (off stage) and the death of Hector, their champion. Act 2 deals with efforts to appease the Greeks, and concludes with an aria for Cassandra with chorus, ‘Non si fidi chi ha prospero il vento’. The first three scenes of Act 3 are entirely in pantomime, as the Trojans wheel the horse into the city and the Greeks burn, sack and pillage. The stage is filled with death, fire and destruction for the remainder of the opera, the action moving freely through recitative, cavatina, ensemble and chorus. At the climax Paris and Helen throw themselves into the flames together. Cassandra and Deiphobus remain behind with the Trojan women and their Greek captors, and the opera concludes with an ensemble and chorus. Mortellari’s conservative harmonic language proved unequal to Verazi’s challenging text; his vocal lines are too long, smooth and flowing to dramatize the emotional extremes expressed in the text....


Michael Kennedy

Opera in three acts by William Walton to a libretto by Christopher Hassall after Geoffrey Chaucer and other sources; London, Covent Garden, 3 December 1954.

Act 1 opens in the citadel of Troy after ten years of war between the Trojans and Greeks. Calkas, the High Priest (bass), tells a group of Trojans that the Delphic Oracle has advised surrender to the Greeks. They are bewildered by this news, as is a young officer, Antenor (baritone), who accuses Calkas of forgery and of being in the Greeks’ pay. The crowd turns on Calkas, who takes refuge in the temple just as Prince Troilus (tenor), son of Priam, the Trojan king, drives them back. He rebukes Antenor and supports Calkas. Antenor ascribes this defence to Troilus’s interest in Calkas’s daughter Cressida (mezzo-soprano), who keeps the altar candles burning.

Troilus admits to himself that Antenor is right and sings of his love for Cressida (‘Child of the wine-dark wave’). Cressida enters, a crimson scarf round her neck. She is a war widow and knows that Calkas is preparing to desert to the Greeks. Her only peace of mind comes from tending the altar....


Michael Fend

(‘The Three Farmers’)

Comédie mêlée d’ ariettes in two acts by Nicolas Dezède to a libretto by Jacques Marie Boutet de Monvel; Paris, Comédie-Italienne (Hôtel de Bourgogne), 24 May 1777.

Louise Desvignes (soprano) eagerly awaits her marriage to her cousin Louis (tenor) scheduled for the next day. Her sister Babette (soprano) confesses to Louise that she is in love with the 16-year-old Blaise (tenor) who has encouraged her affection. Louise’s parents, Jacques (bass-baritone) and Alix (soprano), express their delight at the closer family ties to be created by the marriage of the cousins. Grandfather Mathurin (baritone) has unexpectedly arrived to attend the wedding. When the family sits down to eat and drink, the landlord, M. de Belval (baritone), announces that since he expects to lose a legal case, he is forced to sell the estate to Le Comte (bass). While the women show the new proprietor round, the peasant farmers offer to repay Belval’s debts. Clearly touched, Belval accepts the offer and the farmers rejoice in having kept their landlord....


Jan Smaczny

[Les trois souhaits, ou Les vicissitudes de la vie (‘The Three Wishes, or Life’s Vicissitudes’ [Trojí přání])]

Film opera in a prelude, three acts and a postlude by Bohuslav Martinů to a libretto by Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes; Brno, State Theatre, 16 June 1971.

Les trois souhaits was Martinů’s second collaboration with Ribemont-Dessaignes. Composed between autumn 1928 and the end of May 1929, largely in Paris, it was one of the composer’s most experimental works, blending film with stage action. An orchestral entr’acte now entitled Le départ exists independently.

Essentially, the opera works on two levels. The film element is apparent at the beginning and end of the work and reinforces the impression of fantasy and reality held in balance. The three wishes are the blessings of riches, youthfulness and love, offered by a fairy (contralto) to a middle-aged couple, Nina (soprano) and Arthur (bass-baritone). The opera opens in a studio where the story, a fairy-tale film entitled ‘The Three Wishes’, is being shown. The three wishes are granted in the succeeding acts in a series of fantastic, dream-like situations, some of which are projected on film. After a showing of the film which is the ...


Peter Franklin

(‘The Trumpeter of Säckingen’)

Opera in a prologue and three acts by Viktor E(rnst) Nessler to a libretto by Rudolf Bunge after J. V. von Scheffel’s poetic epic; Leipzig, 4 May 1884.

When the Baron von Schönau (bass) learns that his trumpeter Werner Kirchhofer (tenor) seeks the hand of his daughter Maria (soprano), he banishes Werner and consigns Maria to marriage with the cowardly but noble-born Damian (tenor). Werner then returns with troops to save the Baron from a peasant uprising. A mark on Werner’s arm reveals that he is of noble birth after all, and his union with Maria is permitted. Nessler combined stock characters with formula-composed numbers, some of which, like Werner’s Act 2 farewell to Maria, ‘Behüt dich Gott, es wär so schön gewesen’, became popular. The opera’s success was attributed by critics to Scheffel’s well-known poem, with its mixture of German history and romantic sentimentality, rather than to the deliberate ‘Volkstümlichkeit’ of Nessler’s score....



Roger Parker

(‘The Troubadour’)

Dramma in four parts by Giuseppe Verdi to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano (with additions by Leone Emanuele Bardare) after Antonio García Gutiérrez’s play El trovador; Rome, Teatro Apollo, 19 January 1853 (revised version, Le trouvère: Paris, Opéra, 12 January 1857).

Verdi was still in Venice enjoying the success of Rigoletto (in March 1851) when he wrote to Cammarano suggesting García Gutiérrez’s play (first performed in 1836) as a subject for his next opera. It is clear from his early letters that he saw the drama as a sequel to Rigoletto, this time with an unconventional female character, the gypsy Azucena, at the centre of the action. Azucena, like Rigoletto, was to be fired by two opposing passions: filial love and a desire for vengeance. More than this, it is clear that Verdi wished to develop further the formal freedoms he had experimented with in parts of ...


D. Kern Holoman

(‘The Trojans’)

Opéra in five acts by Hector Berlioz to his own libretto after Virgil’s Aeneid; Paris, Théâtre Lyrique, 4 November 1863 (Acts 3–5, as Les Troyens à Carthage); Karlsruhe, 6–7 December 1890 (complete).

Berlioz was encouraged to undertake an opera on the Aeneid by Liszt’s mistress, the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, during his visits to Weimar in 1855–6. His Mémoires, compiled for the most part between 1848 and 1854, trace the lure of Virgil to the ‘budding imagination’ of his childhood. The scene of Dido on her funeral pyre was but the most vividly remembered of these ‘epic passions for which instinct had prepared me’. In his writings Berlioz often cites the Aeneid, in Latin and from memory (and often, therefore, with errors). Yet his correspondence lacks the references to compositional ferment over Les Troyens that exist for the funeral and Napoleonic works, the Shakespearian compositions and Faust. The implication is that until then he had considered Virgil too hallowed for operatic setting, especially in view of the shoddy treatment an operatic ...


Richard Taruskin

[Tsarskaya nevesta]

Opera in four acts by Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov to a libretto by Il’ya Fyodorovich Tyumenev based on a scenario by the composer after the drama by Lev Alexandrovich Mey; Moscow, Solodovnikov Theatre (Savva Mamontov’s Private Russian Opera), 22 October/3 November 1899.

Although usually described as a historical opera, The Tsar’s Bride is based on a wholly fictional drama that conjures an imaginary tragedy out of the tantalizing documentary vacuum surrounding Ivan the Terrible’s brief third marriage, to a commoner named Marfa Sobakina. A lurid compound of jealousy, murder, potions and madness, Mey’s play was from the first an opera in search of a composer, and before Rimsky set it Borodin (at Balakirev’s urging) had considered it. Rimsky’s first inclination towards the play dates from 1891, a period of disillusion and creative blockage following the failure of Mlada. The demonstrative traditionalism of his eventual setting surely reflects the consequences of that crisis....


Antony Beaumont

Chinesische Fabel in two acts by Ferruccio Busoni to his own libretto after Carlo Gozzi ’s dramatic fairy-tale; Zürich, Stadttheater, 11 May 1917.

After his father’s defeat in battle, Kalaf (tenor) flees to Peking in search of adventure. He is recognized by his former servant, Barak (baritone). The latter tells him of the Emperor’s daughter Turandot (soprano) and of her cruel decree – that every contender for her hand must undergo a trial by riddles and that those who fail are to be beheaded. The narrative is interrupted by the entrance of the Queen Mother of Samarkand (soprano), who bewails the execution of her son. She hurls a portrait of Turandot to the ground. Kalaf picks it up, is fired with love and storms off to the imperial palace.

In scene ii Truffaldino (tenor), chief eunuch, orders his servants to prepare the great hall for a new trial. Neither the Emperor Altoum (bass) nor his ministers, Pantalone (bass) and Tartaglia (bass), are able to dissuade Kalaf, who steadfastly refuses to reveal his identity and insists on ‘death or Turandot’. Turandot’s confidante Adelma (soprano) recognizes him as the man she once vainly loved, but she remains silent. The riddle ceremony begins. Before reading the third riddle, Turandot unveils herself, nearly dazzling Kalaf with her beauty. He triumphs, but when Turandot refuses to fulfil her pledge of marriage he counters with the riddle of his name....


Julian Budden

Dramma lirico in three acts by Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni after Carlo Gozzi’s dramatic fairy-tale; Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 25 April 1926.

The notion of basing an opera on Gozzi’s most celebrated fiaba (fairy-tale) – one that should ‘modernize and bring human warmth to the old cardboard figures’ – arose during a meeting in Milan between Puccini, Adami and Simoni in winter 1919–20. Adami supplied the composer with a copy of Schiller’s adaptation of the play in the Italian translation of Andrea Maffei. Puccini returned it to him with the instruction to make it the basis of the libretto, adding ‘but on it you must rear another figure; I mean – I can’t explain!’ (clearly he was groping his way towards the conception of the slave-girl Liù). His first instinct was to exclude Gozzi’s ‘masks’ but almost immediately afterwards he wrote: ‘It is just possible that by retaining them ...


Richard Osborne

(‘The Turk in Italy’)

Dramma buffo in two acts by Gioachino Rossini to a libretto by Felice Romani after Caterino Mazzolà;’s Il turco in Italia, set by Franz Seydelmann (1788, Dresden); Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 14 August 1814.

The poet Prosdocimo (bass) is in search of a subject for a comedy drawn from real life. At a gypsy camp near Naples he encounters Zaida (soprano) who, as a slave girl in the Erzèrum harem, once loved the prince Selim (bass) but was forced to flee after slanders by jealous rivals had led Selim to sentence her to death. The poet tells Zaida that a Turkish prince will soon arrive and that news of her continued fidelity to Selim can then be sent to Turkey. In fact, the prince is Selim himself. To the delight of the poet, whose plot is badly in need of incident and intrigue, the first girl Selim sees and falls for is the shrewish Fiorilla (soprano), wife of the irascible and frustrated Don Geronio (bass), whose skirmishes with Fiorilla are abetted by his friend, the lady-killing Don Narciso (tenor). During the remainder of the first act the poet takes increasing delight in events: the flirting of Selim and Fiorilla, the anger of Geronio and Narciso, the bedlam that ensues when Selim and Zaida finally meet, recognize one another, and are discovered in an affectionate embrace by the remainder of the company....


Arnold Whittall

Opera in a prologue and two acts, op.54, by Benjamin Britten to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper after Henry James’s tale; Venice, La Fenice, 14 September 1954.

This chamber opera – the orchestra comprises 13 players – was the result of a commission for the Venice Biennale of 1954 and at the première the cast included Peter Pears as Quint, Jennifer Vyvyan as the Governess and the young David Hemmings as Miles. The subject had been in Britten’s mind for some years, after a suggestion by Myfanwy Piper, and her ideas for its operatic treatment encouraged Britten to request a libretto from her rather than from William Plomer, whom he had initially thought of approaching. A complete scenario was arrived at during the summer of 1953 and the libretto began to reach Britten from early in 1954. However, it was the end of March before he was able to begin composing the music, less than six months before the date fixed for the première. The opera was completed in full score by the beginning of August, but various changes were introduced at relatively late stages, notably the addition of the Prologue and of material to the closing scene....


Michael Rose

(‘Everyone in Disguise’)

Commedia lirica in three acts by Carlo Pedrotti to a libretto by M [arco] M [arcelliano] Marcello after Carlo Goldoni’s comedy L’impresario delle Smirne; Verona, Teatro Nuovo, 4 November 1856.

The action takes place in Venice in 1780 and centres on the intrigues of a small opera company. Two rival prima donnas compete for the professional attentions of Abdalà (baritone), a rich merchant from Damascus who has come to Venice to engage his own opera company. He flirts with one, but the billet doux he sends her is unfortunately picked up by the husband of the other, who assumes it is intended for his wife. The second act ends in an atmosphere of some suspicion which is not dispelled by Abdalà’s invitation to the entire company to return with him to Turkey.

The third act takes place on the first night of Carnival. Everyone is in disguise (tutti in maschera...


John Tyrrell

[Dvě vdovy]

Comic opera in two acts by Bedřich Smetana to a libretto by Emanuel Züngel after P. J. F. Mallefille’s play Les deux veuves; Prague, Provisional Theatre, 27 March 1874 (with spoken dialogue); Prague, Provisional Theatre, 15 March 1878 (with recitatives and extra numbers).

Mallefille’s one-act comedy was known to Prague audiences from Alexander Bergen’s German translation (Estates Theatre, 24 June 1862), and from Emanuel Züngel’s Czech translation (Provisional Theatre, 25 August 1868), based not on the original French, but on Bergen, who muted the French satire and wit. Züngel then adapted his version as an opera libretto for Smetana. According to his pencil sketch, Smetana began The Two Widows on 14 July 1873 and finished it on 30 August 1873. The scoring of Act 1 was completed by 18 November 1873 and that of Act 2 by 15 January 1874. At this stage the work was an ‘opéra comique’ with spoken dialogue, four soloists and chorus, and 13 numbers including the two preludes. Smetana himself conducted the première....


Peter Branscombe

(‘Wastel the Tyrolese’)

Komische Oper in three acts by Jakob Haibel to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder ; Vienna, Theater auf der Wieden, 14 May 1796.

One of the best and most successful of Schikaneder’s Lokalstücke – Singspiels set in Vienna and characterized by ‘realistic’ depiction of local characters – Der Tyroler Wastel, with music by Mozart’s posthumous brother-in-law Haibel (he married Sophie Weber in 1807), was performed 66 times in 1796 and in October was followed by a more briefly popular sequel, Östreichs treue Brüder, oder Die Scharfschützen in Tirol. These plays helped establish the popularity of Tyrolese characters and costumes in Vienna, by emphasizing the simple, outspoken nature of the honest countryman faced by the duplicity and selfishness of city manners. Wastel (bass) visits Vienna with his wife, but stays only long enough to help cure his vain sister-in-law’s social aspirations and help his niece secure the hand of the young baker with whom she is in love. The extensive score (like ...


Marita P. McClymonds

(‘The Bird-Catcher’)

Intermezzo in two parts by Niccolò Jommelli ; Venice, Teatro S Samuele, 6 May 1750 (revised as Il paratajo, to a libretto by Charles-François Clément, Paris, Opéra, 25 September 1753).

The original Italian version involves only two singing characters and a silent role. While hunting, Don Narciso (tenor) spies the bird-catcher Mergellina (soprano). Thinking her a woodland goddess, he falls in love. She teases him unmercifully, then relents, and they join the rest of the hunting party. The intermezzo was reworked as Il paratajo (in French, La pipée – the libretto includes the French translation), acquiring another pair of characters and several new arias. This opera, along with works like Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, presented in Paris during 1753, fuelled the Querelle des Bouffons and led to the introduction of italianate elements into French opera.

Jommelli’s music is in the graceful, lightly ornamented mid-century buffo style. Arias are brief, and melodies, built on simple harmonic progressions, are short-breathed, repetitious of words and music, and periodic. As a whole the work is playful and charming. The woodland setting calls forth musical references to birds, and terror elicits nonsense syllables and rapid parlando. A duet concludes each of the two parts, and there is a string obbligato to accompany Don Narciso’s recitative when he believes he is losing his ‘Diana’....


William Ashbrook

(‘Hugo, Count of Paris’)

Tragedia lirica in four parts by Gaetano Donizetti to a libretto by Felice Romani after Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis ’s Blanche d’Aquitaine; Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 13 March 1832.

The plot concerns Ugo [Hugues Capet] (tenor) and his loyalty to Louis V of France (contralto). The royal fiancée Bianca (Soprano) loves Hugues, whose engagement to Bianca’s sister Adelia (soprano) is announced by Louis. The plot is resolved when Bianca drinks the poison she had originally intended for Louis.

Ugo was important to Donizetti’s career as his first major engagement at La Scala (not counting the anaemic Chiara e Serafina of 1822). It put him once more in direct opposition to Bellini, who had opened that season Norma. Donizetti’s score, designed for the same historic cast, headed by Pasta and Giulia Grisi, ran into such problems with the censors that the opera had to be extensively revised, rendering the plot almost incomprehensible and causing Romani to repudiate his libretto. The première was delayed until the end of the season, and though the opera failed Donizetti’s music won a ...


Laurel Fay

(‘The Taming of the Shrew’)

Comic opera in four acts by Vissarion Yakovlevich Shebalin to a libretto by Abram Akimovich Gozenpud after Shakespeare’s comedy; Kuybïshev (now Samara), Opera and Ballet Theatre, 25 May 1957 (previously performed in concert, Moscow, Central House of Art Workers, 1 October 1955).

Shebalin initially contemplated The Taming of the Shrew as a musical comedy in 1942, but during its long gestation the work gradually evolved into a comic opera. Shebalin continued to adapt and rework it for various productions: between the first staged performance in Kuybïshev and the production by the Bol’shoy Theatre two months later, for instance, he completely rewrote the penultimate scene, between Katherine and Petruchio.

To condense Shakespeare’s comedy to its operatic essence many of the secondary characters and complex plot lines were eliminated and scenes were added or rearranged. What was retained was the pact between two suitors – Liuchentsio [Lucentio] (tenor) and Gortenzio [Hortensio] (bass) – for Bianka [Bianca] (soprano), the younger daughter of the rich Paduan merchant Baptista Minola (bass), and Petruchio (baritone), a nobleman from Verona, who undertakes to marry Minola’s ‘shrewish’ elder daughter, Katarina [Katherine] (soprano), and to tame her within a month. By the end of the opera, not only has this goal been brilliantly achieved but the young couple have fallen deeply in love. Little of Shakespeare’s text was retained. In his versified libretto, however, Gozenpud remained close to the spirit of the original, finding an equivalent for Shakespeare’s adroit blend of coarse and lofty styles and a vehicle for his trenchant wit as well as the genuine ardour of the lovers’ passions....