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Article

Laurel Fay

Opera in three acts by Sergey Mikhaylovich Slonimsky to a libretto by Sergey Tsenin after the story by Lidiya Seyfullina; Leningrad, Malïy Opera and Ballet Theatre, 30 September 1967; revised version, Leningrad, Malïy Opera and Ballet Theatre, February 1976.

Slonimsky composed his first opera on a commission from the Stanislavsky–Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre in Moscow. Although the première eventually took place at the Malïy Theatre in Leningrad, the opera was produced simultaneously in Moscow and in Kuybïshev (now Samara) and hailed as one of the best works honouring the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

The story by Seyfullina on which the opera was based was written in 1924 and dealt with the complex relationship between peasant groups in the years immediately following the Revolution. The opera portrays a social drama, within all too human emotional dimensions, against the backdrop of historical events. Its distinctive musical profile owes much to the fusion of Russian folk styles with contemporary expressive devices, as well as to the composer’s innate gift for eloquent solo and choral writing....

Article

James P. Cassaro

[Die Heimsuchung]

Opera in three acts by Gunther Schuller to his own libretto after Franz Kafka’s novel Der Prozess; Hamburg, Staatsoper, 12 October 1966.

Carter Jones (baritone), a black student, is persecuted by the white citizens of a small town. As the opera begins, Jones daydreams about events in the history of his race: a ‘coloured’ Baptist church service of the 1880s and early 19th-century slave auctions. His visions are interrupted by the entrance of three white men who threaten and interrogate him and advise him to stay out of trouble. After a brief but unconsummated flirtation with his white neighbour Miss Hampton (soprano), Jones is summoned before an impromptu tribunal, accused of aspiring to the rights that belong only to whites. The court wants to hang him but is interrupted before the sentence can be carried out. Jones, disillusioned, seeks help from several sources, but to no avail. Not even the Church can provide him with solace from persecution. In the end, Jones, badly beaten, is taken to a remote area and brutally murdered....

Article

Andrew Lamb

(‘The Bird Seller’)

Operetta in three acts by Carl Zeller to a libretto by Moritz West and Ludwig Held, after Varin and Biéville’s Ce que deviennent les roses; Vienna, Theater an der Wien, 10 January 1891.

In an 18th-century Rhineland village the villagers have long been hunting on the Elector’s estate when, to their consternation, it is announced that the Elector is coming for a wild boar hunt. To make good the absence of any remaining wild boar, the gamekeeper Weps (baritone) accepts, for a small bribe, the villagers’ offer of a couple of tame pigs. Weps needs the money to pay off the debts of his nephew Stanislaus (tenor) and, when he learns that the Elector is not coming after all, he arranges for Stanislaus to impersonate him. The disguised Stanislaus gives an audience in a hunting-lodge, where the village postmistress Christel (soubrette) visits him to seek the appointment of zoo director for her lover Adam (tenor ...

Article

Hugo Cole

Chamber opera in three acts by Thea Musgrave to a libretto by Amalia Elguera after Henry James’s short story The Last of the Valerii; Snape, Maltings, 11 June 1974.

Count Marco Valerio (baritone) discovers the plinth of a statue of Ariadne during excavations in the garden of his Italian villa. He becomes obsessed with the desire to find the statue itself, neglecting his young American wife (soprano). The Marchesa Bianca Bianchi (mezzo-soprano) who is in love with the Count, tries to persuade the Countess that her husband loves another woman, while an old friend, Mr Lamb (bass-baritone), offers consolation. The Count, distracted by the voice of Ariadne (soprano) pleading for her Theseus to return to her, is persuaded by his old servant Galtiero (bass) to make a blood sacrifice and cuts his own wrist. The Countess appears and occupies the empty plinth, her voice merging with that of Ariadne as she is reunited with her husband....

Article

Jeremy Sams

(‘The Human Voice’)

Tragédie lyrique in one act by Francis Poulenc to a libretto by Jean Cocteau after his play; Paris, Opéra-Comique (Salle Favart), 6 February 1959.

La voix humaine was conceived and written (February to June 1958) for the soprano Denise Duval. It is in a single act, has a single set and is written for a single singer. As the curtain rises we see the soloist, a young, elegant woman (frequently referred to as ‘Elle’) stretched out on her bed. It is, as Cocteau says, ‘like the scene of a murder’. She rises and makes to leave but just as she reaches the door the telephone rings. She spends the rest of the opera, some 40 minutes, on the telephone. Mostly she is talking to her lover, but the opera opens with a wrong number and is punctuated with the various vicissitudes of a French telephone system which, even when the opera was written (28 years after Cocteau’s play), was notoriously unreliable. Thus an already desperate conversation is interrupted by crossed lines, losses of connection, and panicky rediallings which only serve to exacerbate the already obvious depression and anxiety of the heroine. Indeed these frustrations seem increasingly relevant, for the couple’s relationship has itself been cut off, and she can no longer, in any sense, get through to him; the fact that we can only hear her side of the conversation serves to underline the situation: having left her, he has nothing to say beyond the most banal concern for her state of mind and health. This state soon becomes clear. She lies about what she is wearing, tries unsuccessfully to conceal that she has attempted suicide, becomes by turns jealous, inquisitive, insanely anxious, self-pitying and nostalgic. It becomes evident that he is not at his home; when she hears jazzy music in the background she chooses to play along with the lie, preferring to blame his neighbours. In the end she lets the telephone take his place, wrapping the cord round her neck and taking the receiver to bed with her; when she knows that communication is impossible she begs him to ring off and is left murmuring ‘Je t’aime’ into an unhearing earpiece....

Article

Anthony Sellors

(‘Night Flight’)

Opera in one act by Luigi Dallapiccola to his own libretto after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de nuit; Florence, Teatro della Pergola, 18 May 1940.

The action takes place at the airfield at Buenos Aires in about 1930, during the pioneering days of night flying. On the left of the stage is the office of Rivière (bass-baritone), the airfield director; on the right the office of his employees. After a brief prelude depicting the tranquillity of the aerodrome by night, Scene i opens with Employee III (baritone) telling Rivière of the imminent landing of a plane from Chile. Other flights are expected, and one is scheduled to take off for Europe at three in the morning. Everyone on duty will have a chance to sleep except Rivière, who has instituted night flights to speed up the mail, and whose passion for work permits him no sleep. Against the distant background of a blues about love (offstage soprano), Rivière muses to one of his elderly pilots, Laroux (bass), about the absence of love from his own life....

Article

Marita P. McClymonds

(‘Vologeses’)

Opera seria in three acts by Niccolò Jommelli to a libretto by Mattia Verazi , after Apostolo Zeno ’s Lucio Vero; Ludwigsburg, Schlosstheater, 11 February 1766.

Lucio Vero [Lucius Verus] (tenor) has defeated Vologeses (soprano castrato), King of Parthia, and has become enamoured of his fiancée, Berenice (soprano). Although betrothed to Lucilla (soprano), the daughter of the Roman co-emperor Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus is obsessed with securing the hand of Berenice. In Act 1, Vologeses is placed in an amphitheatre full of wild beasts but is saved by Berenice, who throws herself into the arena, forcing Lucius Verus to give Vologeses a sword in order to save her. Later (Act 3) Berenice is presented with a basin which is supposed to hold the head of her beloved. Lucius Verus offers her the crown and sceptre, but Vologeses arrives with his army. Lucius Verus relents, and the faithful couple are reunited.

An ensemble with diminishing numbers of participants closes each of the first two acts. The ensemble at the end of Act 1 begins as a quartet for Lucius Verus, Lucilla, Berenice and Vologeses. Lucius Verus and Lucilla exit in the middle of the scene, leaving Berenice and Vologeses to conclude with a duet. Here Jommelli dispenses with the usual ritornello and long opening solos for each member of the ensemble. He moves directly from obbligato recitative into short, argumentative exchanges among the characters, who combine in confrontational duets and express themselves simultaneously in four individual musical ideas. The concluding duet has three distinct sections and could stand alone as a musical unit. The multisectional ensemble at the close of Act 2 begins as a confrontational trio. Berenice and Vologeses then sing a duet and exit. Lucius Verus reacts with an impassioned obbligato recitative in the key of the flattened sub-mediant before singing a two-tempo aria....

Article

Volpone  

Hugo Cole

Opera in four acts by Francis Burt to his own libretto, after Ben Jonson’s play; Stuttgart, Staatsoper, 2 June 1960.

Volpone (bass) is visited by his neighbours Voltore (baritone), Corbaccio (tenor) and Corvino (bass). With the connivance of his parasite Mosca (tenor) he persuades each in turn that he is near death and that his neighbour will inherit his wealth. Voltore bribes him with costly presents, Corbaccio disinherits his son Bonario (baritone) in Volpone’s favour, Corvino offers his wife Celia (soprano) to lie with him as a cure for a feigned illness. When Bonario saves Celia from ravishment and wounds Mosca he is accused and tried for the attempted murder of Volpone. To mortify his dupes yet further Volpone disguises himself and lets it be known that he has died, leaving all his possessions to Mosca. When he throws off his disguise, Mosca, hoping to retain Volpone’s fortune, denounces him as an impostor. Volpone in fury reveals the whole plot. Bonario’s name is cleared and Volpone and Mosca are punished for their sins....

Article

Ronald Crichton

(‘The Fisherman and his Wife’)

Dramatic cantata in one act, op. 43, by Othmar Schoeck to his own libretto after the Low German folktale written down by P. O. Runge for the brothers Jacob Ludwig and Wilhelm Carl Grimm ; Dresden, Staatsoper, 3 October 1930.

A poor Fisherman (tenor) tells his discontented Wife (soprano) that he has caught a turbot which informed him it was a prince under a magic spell. The fisherman thereupon put the fish back in the sea. ‘Did you make a wish?’ asks the wife. ‘What should I wish for?’ says the fisherman. The wife, longing to escape from their miserable existence in a ‘pisspot’ of a shack, orders him to ask for a modest hut. The fisherman goes down to the shore and does her bidding. ‘Go back home’ says the Fish (bass, in the orchestra), ‘she has her hut’. Emboldened by this success and by long deprivation the wife asks in turn to live in a castle, to be King, to be Emperor, to be Pope. Each time the fisherman goes down, less and less willingly, to make the request, explaining that ‘my good wife Ilsebill and I do not think as one’, and the fish gruffly obeys. Finally the wife demands to be Almighty God. The fish is horrified. ‘Go home’ is his threatening reply: ‘you will find her in the pisspot once again’....

Article

O.W. Neighbour

(‘From One Day to the Next’)

Opera, op.32, in one act by Arnold Schoenberg , to a libretto by Max Blonda (pseudonym of Gertrud Schoenberg); Frankfurt, Opernhaus, 1 February 1930.

Schoenberg described this opera as light, cheerful and at least partly comic, but also serious in seeking to expose the danger to abiding values in life and art posed by fashion, which changes ‘between today and tomorrow’. He had originally begun a libretto of his own about marital discord under the same title. Thus, although when his wife took over she devised her own quite different story, she was clearly guided by his original conception. Moreover she must have known of his reluctant partial admiration for Strauss’s Intermezzo when she took one or two hints from it. Schoenberg composed the entire work between 25 October 1928 and 1 January 1929, and was so convinced of its immense box-office success that he decided to publish it himself, a miscalculation that cost him dear in both time and money....

Article

Voss  

Thérèse Radic

Opera in two acts by Richard Meale to a libretto by David Malouf after the novel by Patrick White; Adelaide, Festival Centre, 1 March 1986. (The ‘Garden Scene’ was first performed at the Adelaide Festival in 1982.)

Act 1 of the opera is set in Sydney in 1845, Act 2 in the outback and the epilogue in Sydney in 1865. The German explorer Voss (baritone) is determined to be the first man to cross the Australian continent. He seeks the support of the rich merchant Bonner (bass) and collects together the members of his expedition. A gathering to celebrate the heroic endeavour introduces Voss to Bonner’s niece, Laura Trevelyan (soprano), a young woman whose uncompromising nature he sees as the equal of his own. Although the expedition ends in disaster, Laura and Voss, defying convention and the limits of time and space, enter into a correspondence between kindred but warring spirits that is also a marriage – mystic and secret, it is the one achievement of Voss’s fatal enterprise. Behind their relationship lies the interaction between the environment of the Australian outback and human culture, both aboriginal and imported....

Article

Laurel Fay

[Shurishe Vose] (‘Vose’s Uprising’)

Opera in four acts by Sergey Artem’yevich Balasanian to a libretto by A. Dekhoti and M. Tursun-zade; Stalinabad (now Dushanbe), Tajik Musical Theatre, 16 October 1939.

Conscious that he was composing the first Tajik opera, Balasanian steeped himself in the history and lore of the peasant uprising of the 1880s, the subject of his opera, visiting locations in the Bukhara khanate and studying the extensive musical folklore. He kept the style of his opera simple and accessible, emphasizing familiar couplet forms, unpretentious harmonies and transparent orchestration; in the second version, first performed at the Ayni Tajik Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, Stalinabad, on 13 January 1959, he introduced more complex aria, ensemble and choral writing and a more sophisticated role for the orchestra.

Peasant discontent with the Emir’s usurious taxation is brought to a head when Gyulizor (soprano), the beautiful daughter of Vose (bass), is kidnapped by the tax collector for the pleasure of the Emir’s governor, Khakim (baritone). When he hears of the uprising, Khakim sends for reinforcements and infiltrates a spy into Vose’s camp, but he barely escapes when the fortress is captured by Vose’s troops. They free Gyulizor and the other prisoners....

Article

Jean-Yves Bosseur

(‘Your Faust’)

‘Fantasy in the manner of an opera’ by Henri Pousseur to a libretto by Michel Butor; Milan, Piccola Scala, 15 January 1969.

Votre Faust (written 1960–67) constitutes an original approach to music drama, revealing a questioning attitude towards opera and exploring concepts of open artistic form. The dramatization inherent in the interplay of musical ideas, their contribution to the action on stage and the use of realistic elements create links between the functions of singers and actors. Their respective contributions are seen as necessarily complementary within a musical and dramatic phenomenon conceived as an indissoluble unity. There is an osmosis between the verbal and musical elements in Votre Faust and the subject is coloured by musical preoccupations: Henri (spoken), a young composer and a reflection of the modern musician, or indeed of the artist in general with all the social, political and aesthetic problems presupposed by his situation, is approached by a Theatre Director (spoken), an incarnation of Mephistopheles, to write an opera. The only condition imposed is that it should be on the theme of Faust....

Article

Tim Page

Opera in three acts by Philip Glass to a libretto by David Henry Hwang after Glass’s story; New York, Metropolitan Opera, 12 October 1992.

The Metropolitan Opera commissioned The Voyage for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, but Glass said in 1991:

I was not interested in doing another portrait opera about Columbus, I’m much more interested in exploring the concept of discovery, and two aspects in particular: (a) the willingness of people to leave the world they know for a world they don’t know and (b) the interfacing, the collision, of cultures that can take place as the result of these explorations. Instead of a prosaic costume drama about the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, I want to create an allegory, to trace the kinship between Columbus and other explorers – Noah, the Flying Dutchman, Ulysses, the Ancient Mariner.

The opera also includes a character called The Scientist that would seem to be based on Stephen Hawking, author of ...

Article

Richard Taruskin

(‘The Provincial Governor’)

Opera in three acts by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky to a libretto by Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky and the composer after Ostrovsky’s comedy (subtitled Son na Volge, ‘A Volga Dream’); Moscow, Bol’shoy Theatre, 30 January/11 February 1869.

Ostrovsky’s nominal ‘comedy’ was actually a sprawling drama for a cast of 60 in five acts with prologue, replete with dream visions, spirit scenes and a vivid background of 17th-century social unrest. Little of this found its way into the libretto, which, in the parched words of Herman Laroche, the opera’s friendliest critic, confined itself to relating ‘how a certain Nechay Shalïgin [the title character] takes Marya Vlasyevna from Bastryukov and how Bastryukov takes her back again from Nechay’. Add to that the embarrassingly pat resolution of the plot by a deus ex machina in the form of a new Voyevoda providentially sent by the tsar (to whom a grandiose concluding hymn is sung), and there is little wonder that, after its initial, miserably produced run was cut short after five performances, the composer withdrew the opera and (having cannibalized the best music in later works such as ...

Article

Richard Taruskin

(‘The Power of the Fiend’; ‘Hostile Power’)

Opera in five acts by Alexander Nikolayevich Serov to a libretto by Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky (Acts 1–3), Pyotr Kalashnikov and Alexander Zhokhov (Acts 4 and 5) after Ostrovsky’s play Ne tak zhivi, kak khochetsya, a tak, kak bog velit (‘Live Not the Way you’d Like, but as God Commands’, 1855), completed after the composer’s death by his widow Valentina Serova and Nikolay Solov’yov; St Petersburg, Mariinsky Theatre, 19 April/1 May 1871.

Ostrovsky’s play, designated a ‘comedy’ because of its happy ending, was valued by its contemporaries for its portrayal of the confined domestic life of the Moscow merchant class and for its sustained ironic counterpoint of dark doings against the background of the Shrovetide carnival. Pyotr (baritone, in the opera), a young merchant, bored by his wife Dasha (soprano) and oppressed by his strict father, philanders with Grunya (mezzo-soprano), the daughter of Spiridonovna (contralto) the local innkeeper, and, under the influence of a sinister blacksmith named Yeryomka (bass), briefly considers murder as a means of escape. He bethinks himself in time, however, and the play ends with an affirmation of the patriarchal order. As he often did, Ostrovsky peppered the play liberally with proverbs and quotations from folksongs. The chance of using folksongs as the bearer of the drama at every level from recitative to act-finishing ensemble, plus the broad musical possibilities inherent in the carnival background, were what attracted Serov to the play, recommended to him by his close friend the poet Apollon Grigor’yev. Ostrovsky agreed to turn his prose drama into a verse libretto....

Article

Igor Vajda

(‘Resurrection’)

Opera in three acts by Ján Cikker to a libretto by the composer after Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy ’s novel; Prague, National Theatre, 18 May 1962.

Before his departure for battle Nechl’udov (baritone) meets his aunt’s 16-year-old foster-daughter, Katuša (soprano) and seduces her. Pregnant, she is thrown out of the house; when the baby dies she becomes a prostitute. In a bordello, in order to escape the advances of a Merchant (tenor), she has the Waiter (baritone) give him a sleeping draught. But the waiter administers poison and Katuša is arrested for the merchant’s murder.

At her trial Nechl’udov is a juror. The case against her is not proved, but she is sentenced to hard labour on account of her depravity. Stricken with remorse, Nechl’udov follows her to prison, but he is rejected by her and pilloried by the other prisoners. At a second visit he offers to marry her, but she has already promised herself to a Political Prisoner (tenor). Nechl’udov pleads to be allowed to continue to see her when he has obtained her pardon from the tsar. He gives up his estate and follows Katuša to Siberia. Exhausted, she dies in his arms as he tells her of her pardon....

Article

Clive Brown

[Der Waffenschmied von [zu] Worms (‘The Armourer of Worms’)]

Komische Oper by Albert Lortzing to his own libretto after Friedrich Wilhelm von Ziegler’s comedy Liebhaber und Nebenbuhler in einer Person; Vienna, Theater an der Wien, 30 May 1846.

The opera is set in Worms in the 16th century. Count von Liebenau (baritone), under the assumed name of Conrad, is working as an apprentice of the celebrated armourer and veterinarian Hans Stadinger (bass). The count has disguised himself in order to be near Stadinger’s daughter Marie (soprano), with whom he is in love. Liebenau presents himself to Marie as his real self (she does not realize the count is the same person as Conrad) and offers his hand in marriage. Towards the end of Act 1 she struggles to decide between the humble apprentice Conrad, whom she loves, and the prospect of an exalted position as the wife of a nobleman whom she hardly knows; she decides for Conrad. In Act 2 the confusion is compounded when Stadinger, who approves neither of Liebenau (because he is an aristocrat) nor of Conrad (because he thinks him a bad worker and worthless), signifies that another of his apprentices, Georg (tenor; actually Liebenau’s squire in disguise), should marry Marie. At the celebration of Stadinger’s silver jubilee as a master armourer, Irmentraut (mezzo-soprano), Marie’s governess, rushes in to report that the count’s servants have abducted Marie. But Conrad soon appears with Marie, announcing that he has rescued her. Stadinger only gives her the option of marrying Georg or entering a convent. In the final act Stadinger eventually gives way to persuasion and allows Conrad and Marie to be married; he is furious when he discovers that she has actually married Liebenau, but grudgingly gives them his blessing....

Article

Walder  

Thomas Bauman

Ernsthafte Operette (‘serious operetta’) in one act by Georg Benda ( see Benda family (opera) §(1) ) to a libretto by Gotter, (Johann) Friedrich Wilhelm after Marmontel, Jean François (opera) ’s play Silvain (1770); Gotha, Schloss Friedenstein, 23 February 1776.

Walder (tenor), having married Sophie (soprano) against the wishes of his father, Dolmon Vater (tenor), lives disinherited in a hut in the forest. He confronts his arrogant brother Dolmon Sohn (bass); their father, however, is won over by Walder’s family and forgives him.

An idyllic companion to Benda’s Romeo und Julie of the same year, Walder is a high point of northern sobriety in dealing with Roussellian rural joys. The score deftly distinguishes the conventional characters and the unconventional spoil-sport Dolmon Sohn. It culminates in an impressive quartet in which Dolmon Sohn stoutly refuses reconciliation. By adapting Marmontel’s Silvain, Gotter and Benda set themselves in direct competition with an opera already popular throughout Germany in Grétry’s setting and in a spoken adaptation by C. F. Weisse; in consequence, ...

Article

Barry Millington

(‘The Valkyrie’)

First day of der Ring des Nibelungen, Der in three acts by Richard Wagner (see Wagner family, §1) to his own libretto; Munich, Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater, 26 June 1870 (first performance as part of cycle: Bayreuth, Festspielhaus, 14 August 1876).

The first prose sketch for Die Walküre dates from autumn (probably November) 1851. In a letter to Uhlig of 11 November 1851 Wagner referred to the new work as Siegmund und Sieglind: der Walküre Bestrafung, but by 20 November (letter to Liszt) he had renamed it with the familiar title Die Walküre. The sketch was developed into a prose draft (17–26 May 1852) and then into a verse draft (1 June–1 July 1852). The final poem was incorporated into the private printing of the entire Ring text in February 1853.

The first musical sketches for Die Walküre date from the summer of 1852 and include an early version of the Spring Song. The first complete draft was made between 28 June and ...