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Article

Ulisse  

Anthony Sellors

[Ulysses]

Opera in a prologue, two acts and an epilogue by Luigi Dallapiccola to his own libretto after Homer ’s Odyssey; Berlin, Deutsche Oper, 29 September 1968.

The prologue consists of three episodes. In the first, the goddess Calypso (soprano) gazes out to sea from the island of Ogygia, lamenting that Ulysses (baritone) has left her, even though she offered to make him immortal. The second episode, depicting Poseidon’s angry persecution of Ulysses, is for orchestra alone. As the sound of the stormy sea dies away, the scene changes to a wooded beach on the island of Phaeacia, where a group of young girls are playing as they wait for their washing to dry. Only the princess Nausicaa (high soprano) sits apart. She is remembering a dream, a vision of a bridegroom who came to her from the sea. The girls resume their game, but break off suddenly when a man appears from the wood, wearing only a few twigs and leaves. They throw a robe round his shoulders, and Nausicaa, without knowing his identity, welcomes him as the bridegroom of her vision. The stranger is overcome with wonder at Nausicaa’s beauty, and kneels at her feet. She tells him to rise and accompany her to the palace of her father, King Alcinoo [Alcinous] (bass-baritone)....

Article

Scott L. Balthazar

(‘The Last Day of Pompeii’)

Opera seria in two acts by Giovanni Pacini to a libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola ; Naples, Teatro S Carlo, 19 November 1825.

Pacini considered this opera to have been the ‘greatest triumph’ of his first artistic period. It centres on a love triangle in which the tribune Appio Diomede (tenor) is rejected by Ottavia (soprano), wife of Sallustio (bass), the First Magistrate of Pompeii. Seeking revenge, Appio conspires with Pubblio (tenor), custodian of the public baths, to accuse her of seducing Pubblio’s young son Clodio (soprano). Since his wife is unable to refute their charges, Sallustio must sentence her to be buried alive. Before she can be entombed, however, Vesuvius rumbles ominously, leading Pubblio and Clodio to confess their role in Appio’s intrigue. Ottavia’s salvation is only momentary, because the volcano then erupts, killing everyone.

L’ultimo giorno is typical of the Neapolitan machine operas of its time in incorporating a final cataclysm (like the one in Rossini’s ...

Article

Vladia Kunzmann

Tragédie lyrique in a prologue and five acts by Jean-Féry Rebel to a libretto by Sieur d’Hérapine Guichard, Henry after Homer ; Paris, Opéra, 23 January 1703.

The libretto recounts the return of Ulysses (bass, originally sung by Thévenard) to Ithaca where the sorceress Circé [Circe] (soprano, Desmatins), still in love, follows him and tries to win him back with guile and magic. The gods play an active part in thwarting Circe’designs: Junon [Juno] (soprano, Loignon) prevents Pénélope [Penelope] (soprano, Maupin) from succumbing to her suitor Urilas [Urylaos] (bass, Hardouin); Mercure [Mercury] (haute-contre, Boutelou) releases Ulysses’ companions from darkness; Minerve [Minerva] (soprano, D’humé) saves Télémaque [Telemachus] (haute-contre, Cochereau), the last pawn of Circe’s Machiavellian plot. The opera ends with true love triumphing over evil.

In Ulysse Rebel followed the framework of Lully’s tragédies lyriques and included scenes which lent themselves to the ‘merveilleux’. There are certain pre-Ramiste elements, such as ‘high-lying textures’ (G. Sadler) in which the lowest part lies in violin range; in addition, the orchestra is used as an expressive tool, especially in battle, earthquake and storm scenes. Although ...

Article

John H. Roberts

Musicalisches Schau-Spiel in a prologue and three acts by Reinhard Keiser to a libretto by Friedrich Maximilian Lersner after Sieur d’Hérapine Guichard, Henry ’s Ulysse; Copenhagen, Court Theatre, ?November 1722.

After a prologue acclaiming King Frederick IV of Denmark on his birthday, the opera tells the story of Ulysses’ return to Ithaca in a version very different from that in the Odyssey. During the long years of his absence, his wife Penelope (soprano) has remained constant in her love. One of her disappointed suitors, Urilas [Urylaos] (bass), seeks the aid of the sorceress Circe (soprano), who has come to Ithaca in hopes of again seducing Ulysses with her magical powers. She summons infernal spirits to make Penelope love Urylaos, but Penelope succeeds in resisting their charms. The returning Ulysses (bass) first encounters Circe, who tells him that Penelope is planning to kill him and gives him a magic sword that causes him to believe he loves her instead. When Penelope joyfully welcomes him he accuses her of treachery. Ulysses’ lieutenant, Eurilochus (tenor), discovering what has happened, takes the sword away from him, breaking the spell. The enraged Circe tries to stab Penelope, but Mercury (tenor) intervenes and drives Circe away. Having put down a rebellion fomented by Urylaos, Ulysses is happily united with Penelope, and the opera ends with more praise of Frederick and his queen....

Article

Michael Burden

Opera in three acts by John Christopher Smith to a libretto by Samuel Humphreys after Homer ’s Odyssey, books 16–24; London, Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, 16 April 1733.

Humphreys provided a weak libretto, almost entirely without incident – every event of substance, including the slaughter of the suitors, is merely reported. Smith could do little to counter its effects. While much of the music is interesting and some of it is of high quality, the whole does not add up to the sum of its parts. The score (in D-Hs MA/279), shows Smith’s predilection for the da capo aria, and an unsurprising Handelian influence. However, the arias and the choruses are small-scale – the middle sections of the former, for example, are usually short, as are the choruses. The opera was performed with ‘the Habits and the Scenes proper to the Subject’, and the original performers included Jane Barbier (Ulysses), Cecilia Young (Penelope) and Michael Kelly (Telemachus)....

Article

Undina  

Richard Taruskin

Opera in three acts by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky to a libretto by Count Vladimir Sollogub after Friedrich Heinrich Carl de la Motte Fouqué’s story Undine (formerly used by Alexey L’vov).

Composed very quickly (January–July 1869), Tchaikovsky’s treatment of the ubiquitous water-nymph legend never achieved performance. It was refused by the Imperial Theatres (owing, according to a notice by César Cui, to its ‘ultracontemporary style, careless instrumentation and absence of melody’). Three numbers from Act 1 – the orchestral introduction, Undine’s song (‘The waterfall, my uncle’) and the choral finale (storm) – were extracted for concert performance in Moscow (16/28 March 1870) and therefore escaped destruction when the despairing composer burnt the score in 1873. Five years later he considered setting the libretto again, but reconsidered in favour of Romeo and Juliet (also unrealized).

Of the three surviving fragments, the introduction and the song were reused in Tchaikovsky’s incidental music to Ostrovsky’s ...

Article

David Charlton

Zauberoper in three acts by E(rnst) T(heodor) A(madeus) Hoffmann to a libretto by Friedrich Heinrich Carl de la Motte Fouqué after his own story Undine (1811) Berlin, Königliche Schauspiele, 3 August 1816.

Act 1 opens on a stormy night. Undine (soprano) has fled from the hut of her poor foster-parents, a fisherman (bass) and his wife (mezzo-soprano). As the knight Huldbrand (baritone) shelters from the storm, he learns how Undine was adopted in infancy when the fisherman’s own daughter disappeared into the waters. Surrounded by other water spirits, the powerful spirit Kühleborn (bass) warns Undine against humankind. But she meets Huldbrand, and the couple fall in love. They are blessed by Heilmann (baritone), a priest, to Kühleborn’s annoyance. Undine reveals to Huldbrand that she too is a spirit; moreover, she will return to the waters, or even kill Huldbrand, if he loses faith with her. But they decide to be married....

Article

Clive Brown

Romantische Zauberoper in four acts by Albert Lortzing to a libretto by the composer after Friedrich Heinrich Carl de la Motte Fouqué’s story Undine; Magdeburg, Nationaltheater, 21 April 1845.

Act 1 takes place in the hut of the old fisherman Tobias (bass), where Hugo von Ringstetten (tenor) and his squire, Veit (tenor), have taken refuge after a flood. Hugo is in love with the fisherman’s adopted daughter Undine (soprano), found by the river just after the fisherman’s own baby daughter had disappeared. During preparations for the wedding feast Undine’s real father, the powerful prince of the water-spirits Kühleborn (baritone), arrives in disguise to find out about Hugo’s background. The act ends with the departure of the newly married pair for Hugo’s homeland.

Act 2 is set in the court of the recently deceased Duke Heinrich, with whose daughter Bertalda (soprano) Hugo had previously been in love. At the end of the act Kühleborn, who has appeared in another disguise as an ambassador from Naples, asserts that Bertalda is not really the daughter of the duke, but of the fisherman, and this is borne out by the opening of the duke’s will. To the horror of the onlookers Kühleborn then reveals himself as the prince of the water-spirits. In Act 3, which takes place near Hugo’s castle, Bertalda succeeds in displacing Undine in Hugo’s affections. The distraught Undine is taken back into the water by Kühleborn. Act 4 begins in the courtyard of the castle while preparations are under way for Hugo and Bertalda’s wedding. Hugo is troubled by a dream in which Undine opened her arms to him. After a comic scene between Veit and the cellarer Hans (bass), Undine emerges weeping from a well in the centre of the court and enters the castle. In the great hall, wedding guests are celebrating. On the last stroke of midnight Undine appears; Hugo rushes into her arms and falls insensible at her feet. As the guests flee, the room fills with water and the scene changes to reveal Kühleborn’s palace. Undine and Hugo kneel at his feet; at Undine’s request he pardons Hugo’s unfaithfulness....

Article

John C.G. Waterhouse

(‘One of the [Council of] Ten’)

Opera in one act by Gian Francesco Malipiero to his own libretto; Siena, Teatro dei Rinnuovati, 28 August 1971.

Written, astonishingly, in 1970, when Malipiero was 88, this terse little opera (lasting barely 16 minutes) has been regarded by many as a caricatured self-portrait. The chair-bound, irascible old aristocrat Almorò da Mula (baritone) certainly has traits in common with the octogenarian composer – ranging from his physical disability to his obsession with his city’s glorious past. A former member of the 18th-century Venetian Consiglio dei Dieci, Da Mula has lived on into the Napoleonic period, yet stubbornly refuses to recognize that the Venetian republic no longer exists. Those around him have at first tried to humour his illusions by surrounding him with an anachronistic environment (a situation comparable to that in Luigi Pirandello’s Enrico IV). However, the truth eventually gets through to him, whereupon he tears off his bandages, proudly dresses up as a Procuratore di S Marco, dismisses everyone and calmly awaits death....

Article

[Il sacrifizio interrotto; Le sacrifice interromptu (‘The Oracle, or The Interrupted Sacrifice’)]

Opera in two acts by Peter Winter to a libretto by Franz Xaver Huber ; Vienna, Kärntnertortheater, 14 June 1796.

One of Winter’s first works composed for Vienna, this opera proved a notable success there and beyond. Performed throughout Europe well into the 19th century, it was translated and published in several foreign languages. The action takes place in prehistoric Peru. An Inca village prepares for the sacrifice to the sun-god. Elvira (soprano) and Villacuma (bass), desiring revenge on Murney (tenor), imitate the voice of the sun-god during the preparatory ceremony and call for Murney to be the sacrificial victim. Despite his longing to stay alive to be with Myrha (soprano), Murney resolves to face death bravely. During the ceremony of sacrifice, however, the deception is unveiled, and Murney is saved. Several comic characters, including the servants Pedrillo (bass) and Balisa (soprano), provide humorous episodes to lighten the serious tone of the work. Over half of the musical numbers in the work are for ensemble or chorus. Winter draws on a variety of polyphonic and homophonic styles to build several large-scale scenic tableaux, and on an array of idioms in the arias: ...

Article

Uthal  

M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet

[Malvina]

Opéra in one act by Etienne-Nicolas Méhul to a libretto by Jacques M. B. Bins de Saint-Victor after James Macpherson’s Ossianic poem Berrathon; Paris, Opéra-Comique (Théâtre Feydeau), 17 May 1806.

Malvina (soprano) is torn between her love for her father, King Larmor (baritone), and her husband Uthal (haute-contre), who has deposed Larmor. Larmor takes comfort from her support, and they are soon joined by Fingal’s warriors. As they plan their attack, Malvina worries about the outcome. Shortly after they leave, Uthal arrives. At first not recognized by his wife, he rejects her pleas to watch over her father. Larmor and his allies defeat Uthal’s troops, and Uthal is exiled in spite of Malvina’s urging clemency. When she announces, to the surprise of those present, that she will follow her husband, Uthal is moved to ask Larmor’s for-giveness and the king is reconciled with his son-in-law.

Uthal is best known as ‘the opera without violins’, a description that does not do justice to Méhul’s sensitivity to orchestration as a means of establishing atmosphere. The Ossianic subject prompted him not only to remove these brighter tones from the orchestra, but also to reinforce the middle register: the viola section is increased (by the addition of those who would normally play violin, according to the composer’s instructions) and divided into first and second parts throughout. Other instruments are used imaginatively; the woodwinds, for example, are more prominent than usual. Méhul gave particular attention to the sonority of the horns and bassoons, sometimes joined by the harp (for its bardic symbolism), as in the opening of the overture and several ensembles. The male chorus is also remarkable: for example, in the bards’ ...

Article

V buryu  

Laurel Fay

(‘Into the Storm’)

Opera in four acts, op.8, by Tikhon Nikolayevich Khrennikov to a libretto by Alexey Fayko and Nikolay Virta after Virta’s novel Odinochestvo (‘Loneliness’); Moscow, Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre, 10 October 1939; revised version, Moscow, Stanislavsky–Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre, 12 October 1952.

After the condemnation of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936, Soviet theatres were in pressing need of operas that fulfilled the political and aesthetic requirements of Socialist Realism. Khrennikov, a promising 23-year-old who had demonstrated a flair for the theatre, was approached by V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko with a request for an opera on a contemporary theme, and the latter – to whom Khrennikov dedicated the opera – participated with composer, author and librettist in bringing the work to the stage. Into the Storm achieved signal success as a model Stalinist ‘song opera’: on a plot that combined an unambiguous patriotic impulse with a human dimension, it wove accessible folk and popular music idioms into a tuneful and effective drama. It also marked the first appearance of Lenin as a character – albeit in a cameo speaking role – on the operatic stage....

Article

John Tyrrell

(‘In the Well’)

Comic opera in one act by Vilém Blodek to a libretto by Karel Sabina ; Prague, Provisional Theatre, 17 November 1867.

Lidunka (soprano), a young village girl, consults Veruna (contralto), a ‘witch’. Her mother wants her to marry the wealthy widower Janek (bass); Lidunka however prefers the handsome young Vojtěch (tenor). Both men have secretly followed her to Veruna’s outlying cottage and overhear the advice she gets: when the full moon rises (it is midsummer eve) Lidunka should return, cry out ‘Where are you, my beloved?’ and look into the well, where she will see the face of her beloved. In separate arias Vojtěch and Janek register their eagerness that Lidunka should see their faces; to make sure, Janek plans to climb into the leafy tree above the well and look down into it. After an orchestral intermezzo depicting the rising of the moon, a chorus of young people celebrate the summer solstice. Janek climbs up into the tree. He is followed by Vojtěch, who has consulted Veruna and has been told to climb the tree. Janek climbs higher, his branch breaks and he plunges into the well. Lidunka enters, calls for her beloved and looks into the well, and to her dismay sees Janek. When the chorus come to investigate, Janek emerges, covered in mud. Vojtěch takes advantage of Janek’s humiliation and is united with Lidunka....

Article

[ Kuznets Vakula ]

Opera in three acts by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (composed 1874) to a libretto by Yakov Polonsky after Nikolay Vasil’yevich Gogol ’s story Noch’ pered rozhdestvom (‘Christmas Eve’); St Petersburg, Mariinsky Theatre, 24 November/6 December 1876. Tchaikovsky later revised the work as Cherevichki . (For illustration of the first edition ...

Article

Valis  

Andrew Stiller

Opera in two continuous parts by Tod Machover to his own libretto (with contributions from others) after the novel by Philip K. Dick; Paris, Centre Pompidou, 1 December 1987.

Valis had a long and difficult gestation that makes credit for the libretto hard to assign. The Centre Pompidou commissioned the work in 1985, having suggested it two years earlier. The original, French libretto was a collaboration between Machover, the video artist Catherine Ikam and the director Bill Raymond. Following the controversial première, Machover revised the opera, shortening it by one third (to 75 minutes) and recasting it, on his own, into English. Even this version contains small text contributions by Patrick Mason, Julie Machover and Arnaud Petit. The revised (‘definitive, final’) version was commercially recorded in 1988 and first performed in concert form in Boston on 16 June 1989.

In the opera’s final form Dick’s bizarrely autobiographical science-fiction novel has been so severely compressed that neither the order nor the meaning of events is entirely clear; but that is part of the point. The action takes place in southern California in ...

Article

Richard Taruskin

(‘Vampuka, or The African Bride’)

Opera parody in one act by Vladimir Georgiyevich Ehrenberg to his own libretto after a scenario by Anchar Mantsenilov (Prince Mikhaíl Volkonsky); St Petersburg, Krivoye Zerkalo, 19 January/1 February 1909.

A send-up of every grand-opera stereotype, this famous parody (chiefly of Aida and L’Africaine), subtitled ‘a model opera in every way’, was first performed at Nikolay Yevreynov’s theatrical cabaret ‘Krivoye zerkalo’ (‘The Fun-House Mirror’) and had countless professional and amateur productions up until 1927. The title is reputed to stem from a line in the Russian translation of Scribe’s libretto for Robert le diable, as repetitively enunciated in the opera: ‘Vam puk, vam puk, vam puk tsvetov podnosim’ (‘We bring you a bunch, you a bunch, you a bunch of flowers’). ‘Vampuka’ became a common noun in Russian theatrical and operatic slang, meaning any sort of false grandiloquence, and even gave rise to a verb, vampuchit’, meaning to affect any sort of pretentious or melodramatic pose. Stravinsky in particular enjoyed using these words as part of his general polemic against opera in the period of his early fame....

Article

Clive Brown

(‘The Vampire’)

Romantische Oper in three acts by Peter Joseph von Lindpaintner to a libretto by Cäsar Max Heigel after John W. Polidori’s story The Vampyre; Stuttgart, Hoftheater, 21 September 1828.

The story is based on a French melodrama by C. Nodier, P. F. A. Carmouche and A. de Jouffroy (translated into German by H. L. Ritter). The plot follows the main lines of Marschner’s opera of the same title ( see Vampyr, Der ), given in the same year, whose libretto by Wohlbrück is based on the same sources; most of the cast, however, were given different names since the action was transferred by Heigel to the south of France. Marschner’s Malwina is here Isolde (soprano), his Ruthven becomes Hypolit (tenor) and his Davenaut Port d’Amour (bass); the only name in common is Aubry, here Aubri (bass). The influence of Spohr and Weber is apparent in the use of polacca rhythms and chromatic harmony and in the character of various numbers. A cavatina and a Bridesmaids’ Chorus seem indebted to ...

Article

A. Dean Palmer

(‘The Vampire’)

Grosse romantische Oper in two acts by Heinrich August Marschner to a libretto by Wilhelm August Wohlbrück after plays based on John W. Polidori’s story The Vampyre, itself a revision of Lord Byron’s Fragment of a Novel, sometimes called Augustus Darvell; Leipzig, Stadttheater, 29 March 1828.

The original literary source for Marschner’s Vampyr was the fragment of a novel that Byron’s doctor, John W. Polidori, worked up from sketches Byron had abandoned. Attributed to Byron and published in 1819 in the New Monthly Magazine under the title The Vampyre, the story created a sensation. Plays on the vampire theme became popular in France. The most favoured among them proved to be Le vampire (Paris, 13 June 1820) by P. F. A. Carmouche, C. Nodier and A. de Jouffroy, but when J. R. Planché transplanted the action to Scotland, added fresh intrigue, and adapted the work for English audiences as ...

Article

Vanda  

Jan Smaczny

Grand opera in five acts by Antonín Dvořák to a libretto by Václav Beneš-Šumavský and František Zákrejs after a story by Julian Surzycki; Prague, Provisional Theatre, 17 April 1876.

The opera is based on the myth of the Polish queen Vanda (soprano), who drowned herself in the River Vistula in fulfilment of an oath to lay down her life if her people were delivered from the German invader. A major feature of the plot is Vanda’s love for the valiant, though not nobly born, Slavoj (tenor). The villain is the German prince Roderich (baritone), who courts Vanda in Act 2, is found to be in league with dark forces in Act 3 and is defeated by a Polish army led by Slavoj in Act 4. The fifth act deals with Vanda’s farewell and suicide.

Vanda was written in 1875 as Dvořák was approaching his first maturity as a composer. The musical style owes something to Meyerbeer, Gounod and Wagner, but throughout Dvořák’s musical personality is clear. With its fine melodic writing, ...

Article

Vanessa  

Barbara B. Heyman

Opera in four acts, op.32, by Samuel Barber to a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti ; New York, Metropolitan Opera, 15 January 1958.

Inspired by Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, Vanessa is set in a country manor in an unnamed ‘northern country about 1905’. The story unfolds about two women, Vanessa (soprano), ‘a lady of great beauty’, and her beautiful young niece, Erika (mezzo-soprano). Vanessa has for 20 years awaited the return of her only love, Anatol. In a sombre gothic dreamscape, in which chandeliers are dimmed and mirrors draped against the reflection of Vanessa’s advancing age, the wizened Baroness (contralto), Vanessa’s mother, condemns her daughter’s withdrawal from life through her silence. Another Anatol (tenor), the errant lover’s fatally charming son, a bounder and opportunist, enters the manor. Vanessa, mistaking the young man for his father, passionately inquires if he still loves her; she is devastated upon realizing the visitor is not her lover. Erika entreats the impostor to leave, but he refuses....