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Article

Jan Smaczny

(‘The Comedy on the Bridge’)

Radio opera in one act (six Scenes) by Bohuslav Martinů to his own libretto after Václav Kliment Klicpera’s play; Prague, Czech Radio, 18 March 1937; staged in Ostrava, State Theatre, 9 January 1948.

Martinů’s two operas for radio, Hlas lesa (‘The Voice of the Forest’) and The Comedy on the Bridge, arose as a result of commissions from Czech Radio. By 1935 Czech Radio had made a number of studio broadcasts of opera, including Dvořák’s Šelma sedlák (‘The Cunning Peasant’) in 1931, and was beginning to commission works designed for transmission. Martinů’s first opera commission for radio was The Voice of the Forest, composed in April–May 1935 to a libretto by Vítězslav Nezval, and its success led to a second commission. Martinů discovered Klicpera’s comedy during summer 1935, which he spent at his family home in Polička, and was attracted by the spatial separation implicit in the drama as a suitable device for radio. He completed work on the opera on ...

Article

Lowell Lindgren

(‘Vespasian’)

Drama in three acts by Attilio Ariosti to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym , after Giulio Cesare Corradi ’s libretto; London, King’s Theatre, 14 January 1724.

Tito [Titus] (mezzo-soprano) spends the opera avoiding his faithful wife Arricida [Arrecina] (soprano) so that he can dally with his new sweetheart Gesilla (alto). Meanwhile, his villainous brother Domiziano [Domitian] (soprano) is attempting to usurp the imperial throne from their father Vespasian (bass) and obtain Arrecina for himself. Sergio (alto), a Roman general, foils the villain in Acts 1 and 3, and his surprising circumventions of Domitian’s wicked designs, together with attempted and onstage murders, provide an extraordinarily exciting stage spectacle, but the love intrigues suffer from total inertia.

Ariosti’s arias (but not his recitatives) survive; a large portion of them are syllabically set dance-like tunes of a gentle, languishing, pre-classical character. They suit the infatuated Titus and Gesilla, but not Arrecina or the fierce Domitian, and the audience judged ...

Article

Anselm Gerhard

(‘The Vestal Virgin’)

Tragédie lyrique in three acts by Gaspare Spontini to a libretto by (Victor-Joseph-)Etienne de Jouy; Paris, Opéra, 15 December 1807.

Jouy was unable to interest any of the famous composers (Méhul, Boieldieu or Cherubini) in his libretto, and in 1804 he offered it to Spontini, who had just made his mark in Paris with his first opéras comiques. Jouy quoted as his source only an account given by J. J. Winckelmann of an event in the year 269 bc . But the plot agrees in significant details with an anonymous pantomime of 1786, Julia, ou La vestale, adapted from Jean-Gaspard Dubois-Fontanelle’s verse tragedy Ericie, ou La vestale (1767). This was the origin of a remarkably concentrated tragédie lyrique, with no subplots at all, looking back to the era of Gluck in many external details, but bearing the mark of entirely new dramatic principles.

The opera, mostly composed in 1805...

Article

Michael Rose

(‘The Vestal Virgin’)

Tragedia lirica in three acts by Saverio Mercadante to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano; Naples, Teatro S Carlo, 10 March 1840.

This is one of Mercadante’s most consistently interesting works, and has been regarded by some as his masterpiece. The story is much as in Spontini’s opera, but Cammarano was able to ignore the happy ending forced on Jouy by French convention. A modern audience, however, will probably be reminded more of Verdi’s Aida (1871) than Spontini’s La vestale.

The opera opens in the Sacred Grove, where the Chief Vestal (soprano) announces the return of Decio [Decius] (tenor), a military hero formerly believed to have been killed in the Gallic wars. Among the Vestal virgins is Emilia (Spontini’s Julia, mezzo-soprano), who was in love with Decius but became a Vestal on hearing of his death; his unexpected reappearance throws her into a torment of emotion, which turns to agony when, in a triumph scene of Verdian splendour, it is she who has to crown him as victor. In Act 2 Emilia is entrusted by the Chief Vestal with the guardianship of the sacred flame, but Decius has concealed himself in the temple and, during the passionate love duet which follows, the flame is allowed to go out. Decius escapes, but Emilia is left to face the wrath of the High Priest (bass). The last act concerns Emilia’s trial. While the women of the populace plead for mercy, the priests, in chorus, call inexorably for her execution: she is led in, there is a brief, affecting mad scene and she is buried alive. Decius, who has raised a revolt in an attempt to save her, arrives too late and kills himself on her tomb. (It is characteristic of Mercadante’s attitude to the drama throughout this work that, after stabbing himself, Decius is allowed only eight bars of a final aria before breaking off and dying in a few fragments of recitative.)...

Article

Mary Hunter

(‘The Happy Travellers’)

Dramma giocoso in two acts by Pasquale Anfossi to a libretto by Filippo Livigni ; Venice, Teatro S Samuele, autumn 1780.

Giannetto (tenor) and Bettina (soprano) have eloped to an inn in Milan, where they are in desperate need of money. They disguise themselves as a French couple to avoid detection. Giannetto’s father Pancrazio (bass) had arranged for him to marry Donna Isabella (soprano), an agreement which Giannetto has now broken. The stiff and haughty Spaniard Don Gastone (baritone) is also a guest at the inn; he has been jilted by Donna Isabella but is not too grief-stricken to turn his attentions to Bettina. The innkeeper Lauretta (soprano) and the servant Pasquino (bass) complete the cast. Pancrazio and Donna Isabella arrive at the inn looking for Giannetto; the plot is finally resolved by Giannetto’s clever use of notaries and documents which everyone but Bettina misinterprets. The plot is a slender series of excuses for a number of comic episodes; one of these, in Act 2, involves a comparison of French and Italian music, with references to Le Gros and a quotation from Metastasio. One of Anfossi’s liveliest and most varied comic works, it was also one of his most successful, receiving almost 40 productions up to the early 1790s....

Article

Richard Osborne

[Il viaggio a Reims, ossia L’albergo del giglio d’oro (‘The Journey to Reims, or The Hotel of the Golden Lily’)]

Dramma giocoso in one act by Gioachino Rossini to a libretto by Luigi Balocchi derived in part from Mme de Staël’s novel Corinne, ou L’Italie; Paris, Théâtre Italien, 19 June 1825.

Prepared as an entertainment for the coronation of Charles X, this cantata scenica is one of Rossini’s most elaborate and most consistently inspired compositions, though its status as a pièce de circonstance, parts of which he later used in Le comte Ory, makes it an unlikely candidate for a place in the traditional operatic repertory. It is, however, a repository of some of Rossini’s most brilliant vocal writing, while the musical structures take the ensemble writing of the later Neapolitan operas to new levels of length and sophistication, notably the sextet and the ‘Gran pezzo concertato a 14 voci’, which appears in Le comte Ory only in radically slimmed-down form.

The work’s subtitle refers to the hotel at Plombières where the resident staff, marshalled by Madama Cortese (soprano), are preparing their international clientèle for a journey to the coronation at Reims. The principal guest is Corinna (soprano), a celebrated Roman improvising poetess (...

Article

Victory  

Susan Bradshaw

Opera in three acts by Richard Rodney Bennett to a libretto by Beverley Cross after Joseph Conrad’s novel; London, Covent Garden, 13 April 1970.

The action takes place in the Dutch East Indies in 1895, and centres on the reclusive Heyst (bass-baritone) and the eventually tragic outcome of his love for Lena, a singer (mezzo-soprano). The list of named characters includes a further 11 sung roles, three spoken and two silent; the large cast is completed by two choruses and an on-stage ‘Ladies’ Orchestra’....

Article

Ronald Crichton

(‘The Short Life’)

Lyric drama in two acts and four scenes by Manuel de Falla to a libretto by Carlos Fernández Shaw ; Nice, Municipal Casino, 1 April 1913 (in French).

Set in Granada at the beginning of the 20th century, Act 1 scene i takes place in the gypsy quarter on the Albaicín hill. A young gypsy, Salud (soprano), is anxiously awaiting her lover Paco, who has promised to marry her. Her grandmother (mezzo-soprano) tries to console her, warning her against loving too much. The scene is punctuated by voices from a nearby forge lamenting the lot of those born to be anvils rather than hammers. Paco (tenor) arrives, protesting eternal faithfulness. The couple sing a rapturous duet. Unnoticed by them, the old lady’s brother tío Sarvaor (bass) enters, in threatening mood. In the town he has heard a rumour that Paco is about to marry a girl of his own prosperous class. The grandmother calms him down. Salud and Paco arrange to meet next day. Scene ii is an orchestral intermezzo, with wordless chorus, depicting night falling over Granada. It is played with the curtain up....

Article

Andrew Lamb

(‘Parisian Life’)

Opéra bouffe in five (later four) acts by Jacques Offenbach to a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy; Paris, Théâtre du Palais-Royal, 31 October 1866.

The work was written in anticipation of the crowds visiting Paris for the 1867 Exhibition and proved one of the hits of the season. It was composed not for Offenbach’s usual company, but for that of the Palais-Royal, which comprised actors as much as singers – strengthened for the occasion by one of Offenbach’s favourite players, Zulma Bouffar, as the glovemaker Gabrielle. The piece recognizes the company’s limitations with music that is vocally less extensive and demanding than that Offenbach wrote for the Théâtre de la Gaîté. The musical strength lies rather in the sparkling orchestral melodies – above all, waltzes, galops and can-cans which, allied to a humorous libretto that was Meilhac and Halévy at their best, has made the work a perpetual favourite as a symbol of Second Empire gaiety. By the time the piece was revived at the Théâtre des Variétés on ...

Article

Erkki Arni

(‘The Last Tempatations’)

Opera in two acts by Joonas Kokkonen to a libretto by Lauri Kokkonen; Helsinki, Finnish National Opera, 2 September 1975.

In the late 1950s and early 60s Kokkonen became interested in a play by his cousin Lauri Kokkonen about a 19th-century revivalist preacher, Paavo Ruotsalainen (1772–1852). After a long period of gestation the opera was completed in 1975.

On his deathbed Paavo Ruotsalainen (bass) reviews in a series of flashbacks key events in his life as a wandering evangelist. He sees his first wife Riitta (soprano), long since dead, and they reminisce over their life together. They meet the stern blacksmith Högman (baritone), who inspired Paavo to spread his fundamentalist gospel, and they come across their son Juhana (tenor), tragically slain in a brawl. Paavo and Riitta have a furious quarrel, because his wanderings often leave the family destitute. Time and again Paavo finds that he does not have the strength to open the ‘barrier of heaven’ – not even when Riitta on her deathbed calls him to the island of their first happiness. He must go on preaching, even when mocked by unbelievers or rejected by the learned bishops in a great ceremony in Helsinki. Humbly he prays for forgiveness, and hears the blacksmith, Riitta and Juhana all giving thanks to the Lord. At last he is ready to go through the ‘barrier of heaven’. Paavo awakes to find that a group of people who had been tormenting him are in fact members of his family. Tired, but at peace at last, he bids them farewell; and as they sing a hymn, he calmly and quietly expires....

Article

Robert Anderson

[Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe]

Lyric drama in six pictures (or scenes) by Frederick Delius to his own libretto after Gottfried Keller’s novel; Berlin, Komische Oper, 21 February 1907.

Work on the libretto for Delius’s fourth opera began in 1897. Delius first asked Charles Keary to produce an English text. Unhappy with the result, he turned to Karl-August Gerhardi in 1898 for a draft in German. He then resumed negotiations with Keary before deciding to attempt an English libretto himself. This was completed in 1899. The German translation for the first edition of the vocal score (c1906), with piano part by Florent Schmitt, was by Jelka Delius.

Keller based his story on a report in the Zürcher Freitagszeitung of 3 September 1847. It told how a young man of 19 and girl of 17 had fallen in love but failed to win their parents’ consent because of mutual enmity. The young couple had danced one evening in a local inn; the next day they were found dead in a nearby meadow. Keller elaborated the story, making much of the parents’ quarrel over land belonging rightfully to an illegitimate fiddler who could not inherit under Swiss law. Delius used the parental enmity only in so far as it made the marriage of the young couple impossible. The Dark Fiddler was given an altogether more sinister role, as embodiment of the cruel fate that brings about the suicide of the lovers. At the end Delius has unseen bargemen emphasize the frailty of earthly happiness. Delius did concentrated work on the music during ...

Article

Marita P. McClymonds

(‘The Abducted Country Girl’)

Opera giocosa in two acts by Francesco Bianchi to libretto by Giovanni Bertati ; Venice, Teatro S Moisè, autumn 1783.

In the introduzione Biaggio oversees the wedding banquet his two daughters Ninetta and Giannina are preparing for their sister Mandina and her bridegroom Pippo. The Count, enamoured of the young bride, arrives with his friend Paulino. The Count offers ‘out of fondness’ to make the young girl’s fortune. Pippo is suspicious, but Biaggio insists the Count means no harm. When Mandina agrees to live with him in the city, the Count gives her a purse of money. Having overheard the Count’s dishonourable plan, Pippo confronts him in a trio with Biaggio. During the finale of Act 1 the Count drugs the wine and departs into the night with Mandina. It is clear the next morning that she has been abducted, and Biaggio resolves to go to the Count’s palace and bring her back. Meanwhile Mandina, though thrilled with her beautiful new clothes, tells the Count that she loves only Pippo and wishes to return to him and to her father. When Pippo and Biaggio arrive they assume that her new clothing is a sign of her disgrace and reject her pleas in a trio, which becomes a quartet when the Count enters. But Mandina returns to her peasant dress and succeeds in convincing Pippo of her innocence. In the finale her family welcomes her back in the village; the Count appears to reclaim her, but is confounded to learn that she has already married Pippo....

Article

Julian Budden

(‘The Willis’)

Opera-ballo in two acts by Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Ferdinando Fontana after Alphonse Karr’s short story Les Willis; Milan, Teatro Dal Verme, 31 May 1884 (revised version, Turin, Teatro Regio, 26 December 1884).

In the Black Forest villagers are celebrating the engagement of Roberto (tenor) and Anna (soprano), daughter of the head forester, Guglielmo (baritone). Roberto is about to leave for Mainz to collect an inheritance. Anna brings him a posy of forget-me-nots to keep him mindful of their vows (‘Se come voi piccina’). In their duet ‘Tu dell’infanzia mia’ he tells her to doubt the existence of God himself rather than his own constancy. All join in a prayer (‘Angiol di Dio’) to speed him on his way.

At the beginning of Act 2 a verse of poetry describes how Roberto has fallen into the clutches of a siren and forgotten Anna, who died of grief. During an intermezzo (‘L’abbandono’) her body is borne across the stage behind a gauze curtain to an unseen chorus of mourners. A second intermezzo (‘La tregenda’), preceded by more poetry, depicts the dance of the Willis, ghosts of jilted maidens. Outside his cottage Guglielmo grieves for his daughter and inveighs against her faithless lover (‘Anima santa della figlia mia’). Roberto returns penniless and devoured by remorse, recalling his love for Anna (‘Torna ai felici dì’). The Willis appear, among them Anna, who taunts him with his treachery. They dance until Roberto falls dead at her feet....

Article

Jochen Schönleber

Opera in ten scenes by Rainer Kunad to his own libretto after Alfred Matusche’s play Van Gogh; Dresden, Staatsoper, 22 February 1979.

The opera depicts key scenes from the last two years of Van Gogh’s life, leading to his suicide. It is not, however, intended as a musically illustrated biography; instead, the subject is the relationship between society and an individual who is not without some responsibility for his own downfall. On his way through life Vincent (baritone) encounters his (fictitious) lover Jacky (soprano), a drop-out with a lust for life, his fellow-painter Gauguin (bass), his brother Theo (tenor) and Dr Gachet (baritone). He meets with a mainly hostile reception from various briefly characterized figures of Arles society, who join in a nightmare chorus in passacaglia rhythm in the central sixth scene, driving Vincent into the lunatic asylum. In contrast to Berg’s Wozzeck, which Vincent resembles in many ways despite occasional linguistic weaknesses, Kunad avoids large-scale musical forms and attempts, with the aid of serial technique, to let ‘things themselves’ speak, though without resorting to musical illustration. The music is organized around three suggestive sound patterns, employed in the manner of leitmotifs; these are easily perceived by the hearer, as is the basic series forming the tonal centres of the work, which is strictly dodecaphonic in structure. Despite being written for a small, almost conventional orchestral ensemble, with notably sparing use of special effects, the opera makes a strong impression; first staged in a sensational production by Harry Kupfer, it had been given nine productions in German-speaking countries by ...

Article

Erkki Arni

Opera in three acts by Einojuhani Rautavaara to his own libretto; Helsinki, Finnish National Opera, 17 May 1990.

Vincent, an expressionistic study of Vincent van Gogh, takes the form of a long flashback. Towards the end of his life at the sanatorium of St Rémy, Vincent (baritone) recalls his work as a lay preacher in the mining village of Borignage, his stormy life with the prostitute Maria Hoornik (mezzo-soprano) and his tense friendship with Paul Gauguin (bass). He finds inspiration from the appearance of a girl, Gaby (high soprano), whom he sees as his muse. However, at a wild party with Paul’s friends Vincent becomes unbalanced and cuts off his earlobe. The final scene reverts to St Rémy; but instead of leading to Vincent’s suicide, the opera ends with his paean to sunshine and life.

Certain of Van Gogh’s paintings (‘Starry Night’, ‘Crows over a Wheatfield’, ‘The Church at Auvers’) are used as visual waymarks. In a number of attempts to subjugate Vincent, four grotesques appear in different guises: as staff at the sanatorium, as the authorities at Borignage and as a group of art critics. However, his brother Theo (tenor) offers support in his tribulations. The musical language of ...

Article

Manuel Carlos De Brito

(‘The Gypsy’s Revenge’)

Drama joco-sério in one act by António Leal Moreira to a libretto by Domingos Caldas Barbosa; Lisbon, Teatro de S Carlos, 1794.

The libretto, by the Brazilian mulatto poet Caldas Barbosa, paints a vivid social picture of late 18th-century Portugal. The opera is set in the working-class Ribeira district of Lisbon, near the river Tagus, and the characters include the gypsy Pepa (soprano), the fishmonger Tarelo (bass), the sergeant Chibante (baritone), the servant Lambisca (soprano), the barber Grilo (bass) and his black friend Cazumba (bass). There are only two middle-class characters, the French-Italian hairdresser Monsieur Pierre (tenor) and the widow Camila (soprano). The peaceful co-existence of the three couples is momentarily disturbed by a row between the two suitors for the hand of Pepa. The opera follows contemporary trends in its extensive use of vocal ensembles, and it also alternates spoken dialogue with arias, duets and recitatives. The general style of the music betrays the influence of Paisiello and Cimarosa; Monsieur Pierre’s picaresque aria in which he recounts his travels in a mixture of different languages recalls Figaro’s similar aria in Paisiello’s ...

Article

Christopher Palmer

Opera in one act, op.8, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold to a libretto by Hans Müller; Munich, Staatsoper, 28 March 1916.

Violanta is Korngold’s third stage work, and was first presented in a double bill with its immediate predecessor Der Ring des Polykrates. The composer’s father, in collaboration with the librettist Hans Müller, was responsible for the choice of subject, described by the former as ‘a red-hot Renaissance drama’. Korngold’s first attempt at tragedy was a success, and in the following few years received further performances in Germany and abroad. It is a work of great harmonic, melodic and formal discipline, but it also has a remarkable eloquence and authority of expression, particularly in the depiction of physical passion, which belie its composer’s tender years.

The opera is set in 15th-century Venice. Simone Trovai (baritone), is angry that his wife Violanta has been indifferent to him ever since her sister was seduced by Alfonso, Prince of Naples. Violanta (soprano) appears, saying that she has arranged a meeting with Alfonso, and that Simone must avenge her sister by murdering him. Reluctantly, Simone agrees. Violanta’s nurse (contralto) sings a soothing lullaby as her mistress awaits Alfonso. Eventually Alfonso (tenor) arrives and declares his love. Violanta warns Alfonso that he is about to die, but as he describes his unhappy childhood Violanta realizes that she has loved him all along. Simone rushes in to find the couple embracing. He attempts to stab Alfonso, but instead mortally wounds Violanta, who dies in his arms....

Article

Opera in a prologue and three acts by Malcolm Williamson to a libretto by William Chappell based on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s novel; London, Sadler’s Wells, 29 November 1966.

Steamy foreboding and hectic pleasure aptly characterize this drama of a small colonial Caribbean island on the eve of a volcanic explosion that buries it in the ocean, leaving only the ghostly echoes of its carnival violins to frighten away the superstitious fishermen of the prologue. Two leading St-Jacques families hope to reconcile their differences in a grand carnival night party and ball. The son of one family, Marcel (baritone), woos the daughter, Josephine (mezzo-soprano), of the other and makes plans to elope with her that night. Josephine’s cousin Berthe (soprano) mistrusts Marcel and, for the moment, rejects the declarations of her own suitor, Josephine’s brother Sosthène (tenor). The night’s events include disclosure of Marcel’s existing marriage and Berthe’s discovery that Sosthène has grown into the man she might marry. All of this is nullified by the volcano’s catastrophic explosion. Because Berthe has rowed out to sea to try to forestall the eloping lovers she is the only person on the island to survive. Her scena in a small boat on a featureless ocean ends the opera....

Article

Peter Holman

[ The Virgin Prophetess, or The Fate of Troy ]

Semi-opera in five acts by Gottfried Finger based on the play by Elkanah Settle; London, Drury Lane, 2 May 1701.

This was the last of Finger’s English stage works, performed shortly before he left the country for good. The virgin prophetess was Cassandra, and the work, a spoken play with music, deals with the fall of Troy; as in Purcell’s semi-operas, the main characters do not sing. Finger’s contribution consists of a suite of incidental music (London, 1701) and self-contained musical interludes in each act (in GB-Cfm and Lcm ), scored for soloists, chorus and a large orchestra including five-part strings and three trumpets. In Act 1 the Trojans celebrate ‘The Triumph of Paris’; Act 2 contains a ‘Procession Song in the Temple of Diana’, invoking the protection of the goddess; in Act 3 a masque of Cupid (soprano) celebrates Cassandra’s release by the Greeks; in Act 4 Cassandra conjures up masques to warn Paris of Troy’s fall; and in Act 5 the Trojans drink their cares away before the final catastrophe....

Article

Malena Kuss

Tragedia lírica in three acts by José Angel Montero to a libretto by Domenico Bancalari (in Italian); Caracas, Teatro Caracas, 27 April 1873.

The plot, drawn from Roman history, centres on Appius Claudius (baritone), a member of the Decemviri, the commission drawn up to formulate a code of laws known as the Twelve Tables. After its completion in 450 bc Appius Claudius heads a reign of terror to quash an uprising by the plebeians, among whom is Virginia (soprano), daughter of the centurion Virginio (bass), who stabs her to save her from becoming the lover and slave of Appius Claudius. The moral corruption and abuse of power among the Decemviri eventually precipitate their downfall in 449 bc.

The themes of popular defiance against political despotism and of heroic personal sacrifice to the cause of human dignity and freedom appealed to Montero who, like his librettist Bancalari in the pre-unified Italy of Garibaldi’s day, was a committed liberal. The expression of lofty, archetypal emotion pervades the score. The impact of Italian operatic tradition is evident: in accordance with conventions established some 50 years earlier, Montero condensed the traditional scena, cantabile, ...