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Michele Girardi

Dramma musicale in four acts by Alfredo Catalani to a libretto by Luigi Illica after Wilhelmine von Hillern’s story Die Geyer-Wally; Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 20 January 1892.

The action takes place in the Tyrol in about 1800. In the village of Hochstoff the rich landowner Stromminger (bass) taunts Haghenbach (tenor), from the rival village of Sölden, on his return from a hunting expedition. Stromminger’s daughter Wally (soprano) tries to make peace between them and sends away the young huntsman, for whom she shows an obvious partiality; this in turn annoys the factor Gellner (baritone), secretly in love with her, who reveals his feelings to the still angry Stromminger. When her father insists that she must marry Gellner, Wally refuses and he banishes her. She goes off into the mountains with her friend Walter (light soprano), and a year later returns to claim the estate she has inherited from her now deceased father. She goes to Sölden for a festival and in a fit of jealousy over Haghenbach insults Afra (mezzo-soprano), a tavern owner, having been wrongly led to believe by Gellner that Afra is betrothed to the man Wally loves. To avenge the insult, Haghenbach consents to dance with Wally and gives her a kiss, swearing falsely that he loves her. The mockery of the bystanders makes Wally aware of the truth, and she promises to marry Gellner if he will kill Haghenbach. The same evening Haghenbach, who realizes that he loves Wally, goes to Hochstoff to see her but is attacked by Gellner, who hurls him into a ravine. Wally, overcome by remorse, rushes to save him and returns him to Afra, to whom she leaves all her wealth. She goes away before the young man recovers, returning to her refuge in the mountains, and is eventually joined by Haghenbach, who tells her of his love. The couple are finally reconciled, but as they seek the path back the young man is carried away by an avalanche. Calling his name in vain, Wally flings herself into the abyss....


Kurt Gänzl

(‘Waltzes from Vienna’)

Singspiel in three acts, using music by Johann Strauss and his father, the elder Johann Strauss, selected and arranged by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Julius Bittner to a libretto by a. m. Willner, heinz Reichert and Ernst Marischka; Vienna, Stadttheater, 30 October 1930.

Walzer aus Wien has been the most successful, internationally, of the more than 20 theatre works constructed by other hands from the music of Johann Strauss. Its story, a fictionalized life of the composer, centres on the struggles of the young Strauss (baritone) with his unsympathetic father, his romance with the confectioner’s daughter, Resi (soprano), and his relationship with the extrovert Countess Olga (soprano), who helps his ambition to become a musician against his father’s wishes. The music is tastefully, if sometimes confusingly, arranged from a number of well-known Strauss melodies, as well as some less familiar pieces, the most successful of which was the duet ‘Hat ein Engelein in Himmel’, for young Strauss and the Countess. The work’s greatest popularity has been outside Austria, notably in France (as ...


Andrew Lamb

(‘A Waltz Dream’)

Operetta in three acts by Oscar Straus to a libretto by Felix Dörmann and Leopold Jacobson, after Hans Müller’s Das Buch der Abenteuer; Vienna, Carltheater, 2 March 1907.

In the principality of Flausenthurm, Princess Helene (soprano) has today married Lieutenant Niki (tenor) of the Hussars. Niki is uncomfortable with court life and when he hears that an all-female orchestra is playing Viennese music in the castle grounds, he cannot resist going there with his friend Lieutenant Montschi (baritone). Though it is his wedding night, he proceeds to fall in love with the orchestra leader, Franzi (soubrette). Undismayed, Helene invites Franzi back to the castle, where Franzi teaches her how to win back Niki with Viennese charm and Viennese comforts. A celebration of Viennese pleasures and Viennese rhythms, the operetta featured Mizzi Zwerenz as Franzi and Fritz Werner as Niki. Its principal numbers are the waltz dream duet for Niki and Montschi (‘Leise, ganz leise’), the polka ‘G’stellte Mäd’ln’ for Franzi and her orchestra, the duet ‘O, du lieber, o du g’scheiter’ for Niki and Helene and the comedy duet ‘Piccolo, Piccolo’ for Franzi and Count Lothar (buffo). Straus added several new songs for later stage productions and for a film version, ...


Colin Matthews

[The Tale of the Wandering Scholar]

Opera in one act, op.50, by Gustav Holst to a libretto by Clifford Bax after ‘Le pauvre clerc’ from Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars; Liverpool, David Lewis Theatre, 31 January 1934.

In a farmhouse in 13th-century France, Alison (soprano), the young wife of Louis (baritone), is preparing a meal with which to regale the local priest while her husband has gone to town for provisions. Father Philippe (bass) is interested in more than food and drink, but as he is about to carry Alison off to the attic the wandering scholar Pierre (tenor) appears, begging for something to eat. The priest drives him away and resumes his seduction, only to have to hide when Louis is heard returning. He has met Pierre, who tells a story which skilfully reveals first the meal Alison has been cooking and then Father Philippe himself. The priest is chased round the house and out of the door, Pierre has earned a meal, and Alison’s fate hangs in the balance as Louis drives her up to the attic....


Richard Taruskin

[Voyna i mir]

Opera in 13 ‘lyrico-dramatic scenes’ and a choral epigraph by Sergey Prokofiev to a libretto by the composer and Mira Alexandrovna Mendelson (Prokof’ yeva) after Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy’s novel (1869); for premières see Table 2.

Prokofiev’s operatic masterpiece and one of the tiny handful of post-1945 operas to achieve repertory status, War and Peace had an exceptionally complicated creative history that reflected not only the composer’s artistic decisions and those of his close advisers, but also the extremely difficult circumstances that attended the opera’s gestation. Five separate authorial versions can be distinguished, of which four have been the basis of staged performances and three exist in discrete written form.

First version: According to Prokofiev’s widow Lina, as early as 1935 the composer, then living abroad, referred to an opera on Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a plan of long standing, awaiting only the opportunity for long and concentrated work without interruption. It has been discovered, moreover, that the first theme of the overture (associated in the opera with Kutuzov) was first jotted down in a notebook dating from the early months of ...


Hugo Cole

Opera in two acts with a prologue by Alan Bush to a libretto by Nancy Bush; Leipzig, Staatstheater, 6 September 1953.

The opera is set in 1381. The Kentish peasants, led by Wat Tyler (baritone), refuse to pay the poll tax and chase Bampton (bass-baritone), the royal tax commissioner, out of Maidstone. The peasant army frees the preacher, John Ball (bass), from prison and marches to London to beg the king to abolish serfdom.

In Act 2 King Richard II (tenor) and his counsellors conspire to deceive the peasants. The king meets Wat Tyler at Smithfield and agrees to put an end to serfdom. Bampton picks a quarrel with Tyler, and Walworth (bass-baritone), mayor of London, stabs Tyler in the back. A deputation of peasants waits on the king as he comes to Westminster Abbey for a thanksgiving service; he tears up the charter and declares that serfdom shall continue for ever. The opera ends with a chorus of hope for future freedom....


Virginia Saya

Monodrama in one act by Dominick Argento to his own libretto, freely adapted from Anton Pavlovich Chekhov dramatic monologue On the Harmfulness of Smoking Tobacco and J. J. Audubon’s book The Birds of America; Brooklyn, New York, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 19 May 1977.

This 45-minute monodrama for medium male voice (baritone or low tenor) and 12 instruments is set in late 19th-century America at a provincial club meeting. A gentleman lecturer delivers a slide-illustrated talk on the peculiar habits of water fowl, during which parallels with his own unhappy life emerge and he spontaneously unburdens himself to his audience. At first henpecked by his wife, who censures his remarks from the wings, he shows a pathetic demeanour that gradually gives way to self-recognition and dignity in the course of the opera.

The music is organized as a theme and six variations with coda. The material to be varied consists of two 12-note rows, one vocal and one as an accompaniment, presented at the opening. In the fourth variation (‘Consolation’), a quotation of the hymn ‘Once to ev’ry man and nation’ creates a pivotal moment of character development: it becomes clear that the lecturer, who sings and accompanies himself splendidly at the piano, does indeed possess refined qualities that have been suppressed by the vulgar existence of which he complains. The success of the work was instrumental in leading Argento to write his own librettos for later operas....


Andrew Clements

‘Actions for music’ in two parts (11 scenes) by Hans Werner Henze to a libretto by Edward Bond; London, Covent Garden, 12 July 1976.

Henze’s seventh full-length opera, commissioned by the Royal Opera, is much closer to his highly politicized music-theatre works of the early 1970s – The Raft of ‘The Medusa’, El Cimmaron, Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer – than to his preceding work for the opera house The Bassarids (1965). The ‘actions for music’ unfold on a bare stage divided into three acting areas, each with its own chamber orchestra, on which scenes may be presented simultaneously.

The story concerns a General (baritone) in an imaginary empire, celebrating his triumph in the bloody suppression of a rebellion. As he dictates a report of his victory to the Emperor, his soldiers celebrate their fortune (scene i). A Deserter (tenor) is brought before the General (scene ii); while the organist plays choral fantasies on Hassler’s ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’ he is sentenced to be executed. As he waits in the condemned cell, telling his guards of his childhood and of the panic that overwhelmed him on the battlefield, the General is being fêted at a ball; the local people salute him and Rachel (soprano) sings an extravagant aria in A♭ major (‘Hail Liberator’) in his praise. While the sounds of mazurkas and waltzes continue from the ball the General returns to his tent to be told by the Doctor (bass-baritone) that he is suffering from an incurable condition that will lead to total blindness. As he forces himself to return to his desk, the celebrations have turned into an orgy, to the strains of the ...


Detlef Gojowy

(‘The White Rose’)

Opera in eight scenes by Udo Zimmermann to a libretto by Ingo Zimmermann; Dresden, Staatsoper, Oper Studio, 17 June 1967 (revised version, Hamburg, Staatsoper, 27 February 1986).

Zimmermann’s first opera concerns the fate of two young Munich students, Hans and Sophie Scholl (baritone and soprano), and their friends; all were members of a resistance movement known as ‘The White Rose’ whose sense of Christian responsibility led them to distribute leaflets protesting against the policies of the Third Reich. In 1943 the Scholls were arrested, summarily condemned to death and executed.

The opera achieved its full effect only in its revised version of 1984–5 (subtitled ‘Scenes for Two Singers and Fifteen Instrumentalists’), gaining international acclaim following the 1986 première. The libretto, revised by Wolfgang Willaschek, uses diary entries by the Scholls themselves and material by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed under the Third Reich, the German writer and critic Franz Führmann and Tadeusz Rózewicz. Originally a realistic presentation with linear narrative, the emphasis in the revision is on the internal experience of the characters. Felicitas Nicolai has described it as a mosaic of isolated, dreamlike, reflective moments of reminiscence, in the nature of snapshots. An hour before their death, Sophie and Hans Scholl look back at their actions, thoughts and emotions under the Third Reich, in six incidents in prison and seven flashbacks. The opera thus becomes a single 75-minute unity in which time stands still, a kind of ‘stationary music drama’, beginning with the closing of the prison door behind the protagonists, both the first and the last ‘dramatic action’ on stage....



Rodney Milnes

Drame lyrique in four acts by Jules Massenet to a libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and (Jean-François-Romain-)Georges Hartmann, based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774); Vienna, Hofoper, 16 February 1892.

In his ever-unreliable Mes souvenirs, Massenet recalls how his publisher Georges Hartmann accompanied him to Bayreuth for Parsifal in 1886 and gave him a copy of Goethe’s novel when they stopped at Wetzlar on the return journey. With picturesque circumstantial detail the composer describes starting to read it in a noisy, smoke-filled beer hall and finding especial inspiration in the quotation from Ossian that was to form the emotional climax of the opera. In fact, the idea of a Werther opera is mentioned in a letter as early as 1880, and it was germinating even while Massenet was engaged on Manon in 1882. In 1885 he started composition; Hartmann had in all likelihood sketched the scenario, but the libretto was by Blau and Milliet, and the inclusion of the publisher’s name on the title page had more to do with percentages than authorial responsibility. It is also possible that Hartmann’s bankruptcy and the absorption of his business by Heugel the year before the première of ...


Jon Alan Conrad

Musical in two acts by Leonard Bernstein to a libretto by Arthur Laurents after William Shakespeare , from a conception by Jerome Robbins , with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim ; Washington, DC, National Theatre, 19 August 1957 (New York, Winter Garden, 26 September 1957).

The idea of telling the Romeo and Juliet story in terms specific to New York City and its tensions had been discussed since 1949 by the choreographer Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein. The three collaborators kept changing their minds as to the proper social identity of the rival groups, but the work finally took shape, with Stephen Sondheim added to the team. Bernstein produced his own orchestrations, with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. After a mixed critical reception, the musical proved only moderately successful during its initial Broadway run.

The story is set among two rival youth gangs in New York City in the 1950s, the longer-established Jets, led by Riff, and the Puerto Rican newcomers, the Sharks, led by Bernardo. Riff intends to meet Bernardo at a community dance – neutral territory – and challenge him to a fight for control of the neighbourhood. Tony (tenor), a former Jet and Riff’s best friend, meets Maria (soprano), Bernardo’s sister, at the dance, and they fall immediately in love. They meet that night on her fire escape, and again the next day at the shop where she works, where they enact a mock wedding ceremony. Tony tries to intervene at the rumble but succeeds only in accidentally permitting Bernardo to kill Riff; in a rage, Tony himself kills Bernardo. Maria manages to forgive him and they decide to run away together. She sends a message to Tony who is in hiding with the Jets, by Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, but the gang so abuse her that she angrily tells them Maria is dead. Tony, in despair, runs through the streets begging to be killed; he discovers that Maria is alive just as a Shark shoots him. Maria in her grief manages to persuade everyone to let the retaliation stop, giving a hint of hope for reconciliation as the play ends....


Bayan Northcott

Fantasy opera in one act, op.20, by oliver Knussen (1979–83) to a libretto by Maurice Sendak after his book; preliminary version in two acts, Brussels, Théâtre de La Monnaie, 28 November 1980; definitive version, London, National Theatre (Glyndebourne Touring Opera), 9 January 1984.

The opera concerns a six-year-old boy, Max (soprano). Sent to bed without his supper for defying his harassed Mama (mezzo-soprano), he imagines his room turning into a jungle from which he journeys by sea to the land of the Wild Things (solo quintet) who crown him king and follow him in a Wild Rumpus. Missing his creature comforts, Max escapes from the Wild Things, travelling home to his room to find his supper waiting after all. In elaborating words, designs and musical forms from what is essentially a picture book, Sendak and Knussen were consciously attempting to revive the genre of fantasy opera as represented by Stravinsky’s ...


Igor Vajda

[Kruśtňava (Katrena)]

Opera in an overture and six scenes by Eugen Suchoň; to a libretto by the composer and Štefan Hoza after Milo Urban’s short story Za vyšným mlynom (‘Over the Upper Mill’); Bratislava, Slovak National Opera, 10 December 1949.

Composed between 1941 and 1949, The Whirlpool was an immediate success, with 40 performances in its first two seasons. Further productions soon followed: Vajda (p.349) lists 43 up to 1985, several of them in the West (including the USA), where the work is sometimes given under the name Katrena. It is the most successful and most frequently performed postwar Czechoslovak opera and the foundation stone of modern Slovak opera. Suchoň enriched the genre with folk colour in his depiction of popular festivities and wedding celebrations (though only two genuine folk melodies are quoted), and reinforced the social context while attempting to invest the whole work with a statement of belief in the purifying and cathartic nature of art. The chorus not only contributes to the action but also acts as the conscience of rural society; in the words of Polyakova, ‘The voice of the chorus, which Ondrej hears as that of the people, although it is in fact his own inner voice, persuades him finally to admit his crime and to give himself up willingly to justice’. In writing the libretto Suchoň and Hoza added many elements of folk poetry to Urban’s text, including fragments of songs, rhymes and proverbs as well as characteristic figures of speech and turns of phrase....


Christopher Fifield

(‘The Taming of the Shrew’)

Komische Oper in four acts by Hermann Goetz to a libretto by Joseph Victor Widmann after William Shakespeare’s comedy; Mannheim, Nationaltheater, 11 October 1874.

Goetz began work on the opera in 1868, but because of his constant ill-health it was six years before it reached its première. In the field of German comic opera, Der Widerspänstigen Zähmung takes its place alongside Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor and Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Bagdad. At its first performance the role of Katharine was sung by Ottilie Ottiker and Petruchio by Eduard Schlosser; Pauline Lucca and Minnie Hauk were among later interpreters of Katharine’s role. The opera carried its composer’s fame from Vienna (1875) and Berlin (1876) to London (1878) and New York (1886). Goetz, rejecting suggestions that he had been influenced by Die Meistersinger, the great German comic opera of the time, claimed that he remained loyal to the classicism of Mozart. Minnie Hauk, playing Katharine in Berlin in ...


Andrew Lamb

(‘Vienna Blood’)

Operette in three acts arranged by Adolf Mü ller the younger from the music of Johann Strauss to a libretto by Victor Léon and Leo Stein ; Vienna, Carltheater, 25 October 1899.

The operetta was arranged with the elderly composer’s approval from dances published by the house of Cranz. It lacks the compositional span of Strauss’s original operetta compositions, but the sparkle and brilliance of his melodies, allied to a lively plot by the librettists of Die lustige Witwe, has ensured its lasting popularity. Louis Treumann was the original Josef.

It is 1815 and, with everyone in Vienna for the Congress, Count Zedlau (tenor), Viennese ambassador of Reuss-Schleiz-Greiz, is trying to balance his amorous liaisons. Up from the country, his wife Gabriele (soprano) arrives at his villa in Döbling (‘Grüss dich Gott, du liebes Nesterl’), unaware that his ballerina mistress Franziska Cagliari (soprano) is installed there. The Count’s valet Josef (tenor ...


Clive Brown

[Der Wildschütz, oder Die Stimme der Natur (‘The Poacher, or The Voice of Nature’)]

Komische Oper in three acts by Albert Lortzing to a libretto by the composer freely adapted from August von Kotzebue’s comedy Der Rehbock, oder Die schuldlosen Schuldbewussten; Leipzig, 31 December 1842.

The success of Lortzing’s Die beiden Schützen and Zar und Zimmermann was followed, between 1839 and 1841, by three less highly acclaimed operas, Caramo, oder Das Fischerstechen, Hans Sachs and Casanova; but with the production of Der Wildschütz in 1842 the composer once more enjoyed a theatrical triumph. The opera was quickly taken up by other German theatres and appeared in various translations abroad. It is still a standard work in the German repertory.


Richard Taruskin

[ Vil’yam Ratklif ]

Opera in three acts by César Antonovich Cui to a libretto by the composer and Viktor Alexandrovich Krïlov drawn from Alexander Pleshcheyev’s translation of the eponymous ‘dramatic ballad’ by Heinrich Heine , with additional verses by Krïlov; St Petersburg, Mariinsky Theatre, 14/26 February 1869.

William Ratcliff, composed over seven years beginning in 1861, was a failure at its première; only one revival seems ever to have taken place (1900, Moscow, Private Opera). Nevertheless, Cui’s opera is important in the history of the genre in Russia, for it was the first opera by any member of the Balakirev circle to achieve production and was correctly perceived as a programmatic embodiment of their aesthetic ideals.

The plot may be sketched in a few lines. Edward Ratcliff had loved Betty and was killed by Betty’s jealous husband MacGregor (bass), Betty herself dying shortly thereafter. Edward’s son William (baritone) is haunted from childhood by a vision of the ill-starred lovers. Catching sight of Betty’s daughter Mary (soprano), he conceives a violent passion for her, recognizing the woman of his vision; but, rejected by her, he becomes a bandit and resolves that he will kill anyone who attempts to make Mary his own. Douglas (tenor), Mary’s third bridegroom, overcomes Ratcliff, who then rushes in a frenzy to MacGregor’s castle and kills Mary, her father and himself. The vision of Edward and Betty now reappears, but this time they embrace; the death of their children has united them at last....


Steven Ledbetter

Opera in two acts by John Harbison to his own libretto after William Shakespeare ’s play; San Francisco Opera (American Opera Project), 20 August 1979.

Leontes, King of Sicily (baritone), becomes mistakenly convinced that his queen, Hermione (soprano), has betrayed him with his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (baritone). Leontes rejects his newborn daughter as illegitimate and tries Hermione for her supposed infidelity; she is later reported to have died. Meanwhile, in a dumbshow, a Shepherd (bass) finds the abandoned infant and joyfully takes it home. 16 years later the infant, now a beautiful girl, Perdita (soprano), attracts the love of Polixenes’ son Florizel (tenor). Polixenes separates them, but they flee to Leontes, who learns Perdita’s identity; Florizel is reconciled with his father, and the two kings revive their friendship. Leontes regrets the death of Hermione, whom he now believes to have been innocent. Her maid Paulina (mezzo-soprano) leads him to a gallery to see a statue of Hermione; at a word from Paulina, the ‘statue’ comes to life as Hermione herself, and she embraces Leontes....



Andrew Clements

Opera in three acts by Alban Berg to his own libretto, after Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck; Berlin, Staatsoper, 14 December 1925.

*Sprechstimme roles

Berg began work on an operatic treatment of Büchner’s play in 1914, after he had attended its first Viennese performance at the Residenzebühne on 5 May. It had been given in Landau’s revision of K. E. Franzos’s 1879 edition of the text and entitled Wozzeck because of a misreading of the almost illegible manuscript; Berg prepared his libretto from the Landau edition and hence preserved the misspelling in the opera. By the end of 1914 he had prepared a draft libretto and made some musical sketches, but he then set it aside to finish the Three Orchestral Pieces op.6. Conscription and subsequent service in the Austrian War Ministry prevented his returning to work on Wozzeck until 1917; he reported progress by autumn the following year, but even after the end of World War I it remained slow. Act 1 was completed by ...


Stephen Banfield

[Les naufrageurs; Strandrecht]

Lyrical drama in three acts by ethel Smyth to a libretto in French by Henry Brewster and Smyth; Leipzig, Neues Theater, 11 November 1906.

Set in Cornwall at the time of John Wesley’s travels (mid-18th century), the plot concerns a poor, isolated community and the tragic struggle of two of its members to escape its oppressive values. Mark (tenor), a young fisherman, is in love with Thirza (mezzo-soprano), who has come to the village from elsewhere and is alienated from her older husband Pascoe (bass-baritone). Pascoe is the village headman and preacher, who condones the practice (source of the local livelihood) of putting the lighthouse out of action on stormy nights, thereby luring ships on to the rocks for plunder; indeed, in Act 1, he attributes the current dearth of wrecks to the villagers’ sinfulness. Avis (soprano), however, daughter of the lighthouse-keeper Lawrence (baritone), knows better: someone is lighting a beacon on the cliffs to warn the ships. Herself in love with Mark, who has cast her off, she also knows about Mark’s involvement with Thirza and hints about it to Pascoe. A ship is driving on to the rocks, and in Act 2, set on the cliffs, Mark is about to light the warning beacon when Thirza enters and implores him not to because the cliffs are being watched. They sing a passionate duet and decide to run away together, but Thirza lights the torch and Pascoe sees them departing. He faints by the fire, where he is discovered by the villagers who, believing him the culprit, haul him off for trial in a sea cave which is the setting for Act 3. He refuses to betray his wife, but when Avis’s attempts first to accuse Thirza of bewitching Pascoe and then to save Mark (when he owns up) are unsuccessful, the lovers are left to die together in the cave as the rising tide engulfs them....