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(‘The Wonderful Wife of the Cobbler’)

Opera in two acts by Udo Zimmermann to a libretto by Eberhard Schmidt and the composer after Federico García Lorca’s play; Schwetzingen, 25 April 1982.

Following the success of Der Schuhu at the 1977 Schwetzingen Festival, the Süddeutscher Rundfunk commissioned Zimmermann to write a fifth opera for the 1981 festival: Die wundersame Schustersfrau was first performed, in a German translation by E. Beck, in 1982 by a company from the Hamburg Staatsoper and has since been staged at Leipzig, Berlin and Munich.

In its criticism of utopian ideas, the subject appears related to that of Der Schuhu. The cobbler’s wife (soprano), wrote Lorca,

is constantly at odds with real ideas and things because she lives in a world of her own where all ideas and objects have a mysterious significance which she does not perceive. She has never lived any- where else nor had any other love except on the other bank, where she neither can nor will go....



(‘The Desert Island’)

Singspiel in one act by Joseph Schuster to a libretto by August Gottlieb Meissner after Pietro Metastasio ’s L’isola disabitata (1753); Leipzig, Theater am Rannstädter Tor, 30 September 1779.

Meissner made his translation os Metastasio’s azione teatrale after tiring of adapting French comic opera texts for German composers. As with other German operas of a Metastasian stamp, the recitative is kep as verse (rather than turned into spoken dialogue), but Meissner rewrote several arias that he felt had been written with the composer rather than poetic style in mind. Schusters through-composed setting may have been the one used at a performance in German at Pressburg (...


Laurie Shulman

Opera in one act by Count Marco Aurelio Marliani to a libretto by Eugène Scribe; Paris, Opéra, 28 October 1839.

The title is a Gallic version of the Spanish jácara (diminutive jácarilla), a villancico or romance about disreputable characters. Louis Véron, from 1831 to 1835 director of the Paris Opéra, claimed that Scribe altered the spelling so that his libretto titles would begin with each letter of the alphabet. In Marliani’s opera, situated in Cádiz, the xacarilla is a smugglers’ chorus with several reprises at key moments in the drama. When the ruffians first sing it, their accomplice, the innkeeper Cojuelo (bass-baritone), opens his doors to admit them. Witnessing this occurrence and misconstruing it as magic, the penniless and hungry young sailor Lazarillo (mezzo-soprano) tries singing the chorus from memory. The doors swing open. Incorrectly assuming him to be one of the brigands, Cojuelo invites him to join the others for dinner. Thus admitted, Lazarillo is astonished to find his mistress Ritta (soprano) within, not realizing that she is Cojuelo’s daughter. The lovers reaffirm their commitment, interrupted by Cojuelo, who attempts to deter Lazarillo’s courtship by offering him a greater share of the contraband. The Corrégidor (bass-baritone), to whom Ritta is promised, arrives to investigate rumours of smuggling. Faced with incrimination by Lazarillo, Cojuelo saves his neck only by agreeing to let his daughter marry the sailor. The hapless Corrégidor is duped out of both criminals and fiancée, and the lovers are united....


Lowell Lindgren


Dramma per musica in three acts by Giovanni Bononcini to a libretto by Silvio Stampiglia after Count Nicolò Minato ’s libretto (Venice, 1654); Rome, Teatro di Tordinona, 25 January 1694.

Minato is still named as librettist on the title-page of the 1694 edition, and Stampiglia did retain his plot. King Xerxes (soprano) falls in love with Romilda (soprano), who loves and is loved by his brother Arsamene (contralto). Her sister Adelanta (soprano) also loves Arsamene, and tries to obtain him by various ruses. Princess Amastre (contralto), who loves Xerxes even though he abandoned her, comes to the court disguised as a warrior. These five young lovers are joined by three of an older generation (contralto, tenor and bass) and two comic servants (soprano and tenor). Misunderstood orders and a misdirected letter set the plot spinning comically out of control until the very end, when Xerxes is finally reunited with Amastre and accepts the marriage of Arsamene to Romilda....


Martha Novak Clinkscale


Drama per musica in a prologue and three acts by Francesco Cavalli to a libretto by Count Nicolò Minato based on Herodotus’s History (book 7); Venice, Teatro SS Giovanni e Paolo, 12 January 1654.

Xerxes (alto), King of Persia, moves his army to Abydos in order to prepare for an invasion of Athens. While waiting for his engineers to complete a bridge across the Hellespont, he and his brother Arsamene (alto) compete for the love of Romilda (soprano), daughter of Ariodate (tenor), Prince of Abydos. Romilda prefers Arsamene but Xerxes is determined to marry her himself. He tells Ariodate that, as a reward for his alliance with the Persians in their victory over the Moors, he shall have a royal son-in-law. Meanwhile, Amastre (soprano), Princess of Susa, disguises herself as a soldier and arrives in search of Xerxes, to whom she is betrothed. Further complications are caused by the ineptness of Elviro (alto), Arsamene’s comic servant, and by the neurotic ploys of Romilda’s sister, Adelanta (soprano), who also loves Arsamene. Xerxes’ eunuch commander, Eumene (soprano), summarizes the vanity of everyone’s behaviour in his sardonic aria ‘La bellezza è un don fugace’....


Richard Taruskin

(‘Postal Coachmen at the Relay Station’)

Comic opera in one act by Yevstigney Ipat’yevich Fomin to a libretto by Nikolay Alexandrovich L’vov ; possibly Tambov, Municipal Theatre, 1788.

The trifling plot concerns a postal coachman who evades an unjust conscription thanks to the kind intercession of the Empress Catherine II. Though almost unknown until the 1940s, the opera is now considered one of the masterpieces of 18th-century Russian music. The autograph score (in RUS-SPtob ) is dated 1787, at St Petersburg, but there is no record of a performance in either Russian capital. The libretto was published in Tambov in 1788, during the term of the poet Gavriil Derzhavin as provincial governor there, and an autograph of the text survives in Derzhavin’s archive in St Petersburg. It has therefore been suggested that the opera was intended by Derzhavin as a greeting for Catherine II during her extended tour of the southern provinces in 1787. However, the empress did not visit Tambov, and the opera was not performed in her presence....


David Russell Hulme

[The Yeomen of the Guard; or, The Merryman and his Maid]

Operetta in two acts by Arthur Sullivan to a libretto by W(illiam) S(chwenck) Gilbert ; London, Savoy Theatre, 3 October 1888.

For Gilbert this essentially romantic rather than comic libretto represented a new departure, and one which satisfied Sullivan’s desire to set what he had called ‘a story of human interest and probability’. The story, similar to that of Wallace’s Maritana, is set within the Tower of London during the 16th century. Falsely accused, Colonel Fairfax (tenor) eludes the headsman through the intervention of Sergeant Meryll (baritone) and his daughter Phoebe (mezzo-soprano). Eventually reprieved, Fairfax finds happiness with his new-found love, the strolling player Elsie Maynard (soprano), but at tragic cost to her devoted jester partner Jack Point (baritone), whose collapse at his rejection is treated with tragic simplicity.

Sullivan’s setting is notably more serious and operatic than those of his other Gilbert collaborations. Although there are fine individual numbers, including the ballad ‘Is life a boon?’, Phoebe’s ‘When maiden loves’ and ‘Were I thy bride’, the quartet ‘When a wooer goes a-wooing’ and the celebrated duet ‘I have a song to sing, O!’ (the setting of whose successively lengthening stanzas caused Sullivan much trouble), the work impresses most by its unity of musical style and atmosphere for, as Gervase Hughes observed, ‘the spirit of the grim old Tower indefinably pervades the music from the first bar of the overture to the final ...



Simon Wright

Opera in three acts by Heitor Villa-Lobos after Federico García Lorca ’s play; Santa Fe, 12 August 1971.

Yerma (soprano) lives in a rural Spanish community where the primary occupation is shepherding. She laments her apparent infertility, for which she receives no sympathy from her husband Juan (tenor), who has no interest in children. Yerma’s despair increases as, all around her, she sees signs of fecundity and child-bearing, particularly in the pregnancy of her friend Maria (mezzo-soprano). Yerma’s disapproving sisters-in-law confine her both mentally and physically, and she secretly pays a nocturnal visit to a Sorceress (contralto), having been briefly tempted to return to the love of her youth, Victor (baritone). Magic failing, Yerma prays for a child at a religious shrine, but is confronted there with the ironic spectacle of a pagan fertility rite. Juan, outraged that Yerma should be out alone, comes to find her, and in a fit of passionate frustration at Juan’s indifference to her need for a child Yerma strangles him, realizing then that her dream of motherhood has now vanished forever. The opera closes with pilgrims singing at the shrine....


Richard Taruskin

(‘Eugene Onegin’)

Lyric scenes in three acts by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky to a libretto by the composer and Konstantin Stepanovich Shilovsky after Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin’s novel in verse (1833); Moscow, Malïy Theatre, 17 /29 March 1879 [students of the Moscow Conservatory]; professional première, Moscow, Bol’shoy Theatre, 11 /23 January 1881.

The idea of transposing the most beloved work of Russian fiction to the musical stage was not Tchaikovsky’s to begin with. It was proposed to him, during a social call on 25 May /6 June 1877, by the contralto Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya (1845–1919), and, according to an oft-cited letter to his brother Modest, at first it struck the composer as ‘wild’. The drawbacks were obvious: Pushkin’s novel was loved for the telling, not the tale. The plot as such was slender and banal: a dreamy country girl falls in love with a young fop from the big city; she impulsively pours out her feelings to him in a letter; she is rebuffed and humiliated; five years later the two encounter one another again and fop is smitten; by now country girl has become a society matron who will not abandon her husband for her old love. There is also a subplot involving fop’s friend, a provincial poetaster, and country girl’s vacuous sister, over whom the two young men duel needlessly and the friend is meaninglessly slain. The book was loved for its divine details: the verbal dazzle, the wry social commentary, the perfectly exact descriptions, the endlessly subtle and nuanced characterizations, the ironized interrelationship of literary and social conventions – all that comes under the heading of narrative quality....


Ned Rorem

Puppet opera in 14 scenes by Lou Harrison to a libretto by Robert Gordon; Pasadena, California, 5 November 1971.

Harrison claims that his is the only opera with an overtly presented gay subject from history. The action, more described by a narrator than portrayed by actors, seems archaic, formal, stylized, dispassionate. It concerns the coming of age of Gaius Julius Caesar (tenor), from his patrician adolescence in Rome to his first conquest – military and amorous – in the Turkish province of Bithynia, where King Nicomedes (baritone) takes him to heart and bed with detailed pomp and circumstance. The first production used singers sitting in the pit; the orchestra consisted of instruments invented and built by Harrison’s companion, William Colvig, besides instruments imported from Korea, Japan and other points east. Lasting around 90 minutes, the work has nine singing and four speaking roles.

The sonic language is of extravagant simplicity. Decades before Philip Glass launched his reiterated diatonic ostinatos, Harrison was preparing ‘canvases’ of identical ostinatos, upon which he etched ravishing melodic streams. ...


Richard Taruskin


Opera in five acts by Alexander Nikolayevich Serov to a libretto based on the composer’s scenario after Paolo Giacometti’s Giuditta (originally written in Italian by Ivan Antonovich Giustiniani), with textual accretions (mostly to already-composed music) by Konstantin Zvantsov, Dmitry Lobanov and Apollon Maykov, inspired in part by Friedrich Hebbel’s tragedy; St Petersburg, Mariinsky Theatre, 16/28 May 1863.

Richard Wagner accurately guessed the way his Russian friend served up the bloody Apocryphal perennial about the Judean heroine who rescues her besieged people by seducing and beheading the Assyrian commander Holofernes: ‘In five acts, isn’t it? First, populace; then, Judith alone; after that, in the camp, the murder, and triumphant return’. Although by 1863 Serov had long since declared himself Wagner’s disciple (and his evident attempt to cast his musical drama in the form of a ‘continuous finale’ testifies to his sincerity), he remained true to the conventional format of grand ‘historical’ opera. The outer acts are vast choral tableaux: the first ends with an effectively pessimistic fadeout, the last with a grand apotheosis crowned by the heroine’s coloratura. The Assyrian acts (3 and 4) contain exotic ‘oriental’ songs and dances, a procession with onstage ...



Masakata Kanazawa

(‘The Twilight Heron’)

Opera in one act by Ikuma Dan , to a libretto which is the unchanged text of Junji Kinoshita’s play based on a Japanese folktale; Osaka, Asahi Hall, 30 January 1952 (revised version Zürich, 27 June 1957).

In a snowy village lives Yohyō (tenor), a farmer, with his new wife Tsū (soprano), who is popular among the village children. Yohyō is an honest and simple young man, but recently he has become lazy, while Tsū supports him by weaving a luxurious fabric made of heron feathers. Two sly villagers, Unzu (baritone) and Sōdo (bass), suspect that Tsū may be a heron which has taken human form, and find out that Yohyō did once help a heron hurt by an arrow; they persuade him to go to the capital to sell the fabric for a very high price. Meanwhile Tsū appears with the village children and laments the change in Yohyō’s character. Yohyō asks Tsū to weave the fabric once more, and she finally agrees on condition that he will not look into her room while she is weaving. The temptation, however, is too strong and he peeps in only to find a heron working on the loom. Tsū appears with the newly woven fabric, confesses that she is the bird Yohyō once helped, and disappears. As Yohyō desperately holds the fabric in his arms, the village children notice a heron disappearing in the evening sky....



Julian Rushton

[ Das Serail ]

Singspiel in two acts, K344/336b, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to a libretto by Johann Andreas Schachtner after Franz Josef Sebastiani’s Das Serail; Frankfurt, 27 January 1866.

Mozart wrote Zaide in Salzburg between autumn 1779 and mid-1780, perhaps for J. H. Böhm’s touring company or Schikaneder’s, but surely with the National Singspiel in mind. In April 1781 Stephanie rejected it as too serious for Vienna. The autograph is untitled. The source, a Singspiel by Sebastiani, is called Das Serail; ‘Zaide ’ was chosen by Johann Anton André for his 1838 publication, and avoids confusion with Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Schachtner’s libretto was evidently more than a revision, but it is lost apart from incipits in the autograph score. Zaide was first performed at Frankfurt (Mozart’s birthday, 1866), as completed by André, who had added an overture and finale, and with new text by Friedrich Carl Gollmick. Other versions followed, in German, French and English, often with additional music from ...


Lionel Sawkins

(‘Zaide, Queen of Granada’)

Ballet-héroïque in a prologue and three acts by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer to a libretto by the Abbé de La Marre; Paris, Opéra, 3 September 1739.

First performed as part of the festivities surrounding the wedding of Louis XV’s daughter in 1739, Zaïde initially ran for 44 performances (the divertissement, Momus amoureux, was added on 27 October 1739 after the first 31 performances but later dropped; a copy of the opera in F-Po includes substantial autograph revisions made before the première). The work was revived for the dauphin’s wedding in 1745, first at Versailles on 10 March of that year, and then at the Paris Opéra on 13 May (the prologue, with an added scene not included in later revivals, was omitted at Versailles). It remained in the Opéra repertory until 1770. La Marre’s libretto, based on the same quasi-historical material from Moorish Spain as earlier works by Quinault (La généreuse ingratitude...



Simon Maguire and Elizabeth Forbes

Tragedia lirica in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini to a libretto by Felice Romani after Voltaire ’s tragedy Zaïre; Parma, Teatro Ducale, 16 May 1829.

Composed for the inauguration of the Teatro Ducale, Zaira represents the only lasting failure of Bellini’s career. Bellini was second choice of the commissioners, who had wanted Rossini (living in Paris) to compose an opera for the occasion. Bellini refused to set Cesare in Egitto, a text by Luigi Torrigiani, controller of theatrical spectacles in Parma; instead he persuaded Romani to adapt Voltaire’s Zaïre. Composer and librettist arrived in Parma on 17 March, from Milan, where they had successfully staged La straniera at La Scala the previous month, but did not start serious work on their opera until mid-April. There were further delays, and the Parmigiani discerned a lack of enthusiasm in Bellini, whose sights were firmly fixed on more important theatres in order to advance his career....



Graham Sadler

Pastorale-héroïque in a prologue and four acts by Jean-Philippe Rameau to a libretto by (Jean-)Louis de Cahusac ; Paris, Opéra, 29 February 1748.

A vogue for the enchanted world of Middle Eastern myth had been created by such works as Duval’s Les génies (1736) and Rebel and Francoeur’s Zélindor, roi des sylphes (1745). Elements of ‘la féerie’, as it was known, may be found in many of Rameau’s later operas, including Zoroastre, La guirlande and Les Paladins, but only Acante et Céphise and the present work devote themselves entirely to the genre.

Zaïs (haute-contre) is a ‘génie de l’air’, an elemental being who has fallen in love with Zélide (soprano), a shepherdess. Disguised as a shepherd, he gains Zélide’s love, but is commanded by L’Amour [Cupid] (soprano) to prove her constancy. From the various trials by ordeal that she is forced to undergo, Zélide emerges undaunted. She is nevertheless upset to learn of Zaïs’s noble lineage. The genie decides to sacrifice all for his love, and breaks the magic ring that is the token of his supernatural power. His temple collapses, and the lovers find themselves alone in a terrifying desert. Touched by this sacrifice, Oromasès (bass), the benevolent king of the genies, restores to Zaïs his power and grants immortality to Zélide....



Elizabeth Forbes

[Zampa, ou La fiancée de marbre (‘Zampa, or The Marble Fiancée’)

Opéra comique in three acts by Ferdinand Hérold to a libretto by Mélesville [Anne-Honoré-Joseph Duveyrier]; Paris, Opéra-Comique (Salle Ventadour), 3 May 1831.

In a castle in Sicily Alphonse de Monza (tenor) and his fiancée Camille (soprano) are about to be married. As they await her father, the rich merchant Lugano, Camille sings the ballad of Alice Manfredi, who was betrayed by her lover and now adorns the castle as a statue. A stranger arrives; it is Zampa (tenor), a proscribed pirate sought by the authorities, who is, in fact, the Count de Monza, Alphonse’s elder brother and the seducer of Alice. Zampa reveals his identity only to Camille; he has taken her father hostage and desires to marry her. Zampa and his pirates celebrate noisily; in jest he places a ring on the statue’s finger, but then cannot remove it.

In the second act Zampa expresses his passionate love for Camille in ‘Il faut céder à mes lois’. A letter arrives from the viceroy promising to pardon Zampa if he leads the fleet in battle. As Zampa and Camille enter the chapel, the pirate feels the marble hand of Alice on his shoulder. Camille, waiting in terror for Zampa to come to her, hears the voice of Alphonse from the garden singing a barcarolle. In vain she begs for pity from Zampa, then escapes as the pirate is confronted with the statue of Alice, which crushes him to death in its arms; they are engulfed as Etna erupts in flames. Alphonse, Camille and her father are reunited....


Richard Taruskin

(‘A Cossack beyond the Danube’)

‘Original little-Russian opera’ (i.e. Ukrainian-style Singspiel) in three acts by Semyon Stepanovich Gulak-Artemovsky to his own libretto; St Petersburg, Mariinsky Theatre, 14/26 April 1863.

The opera is set in 18th-century Turkey (on territory now belonging to Romania). The plot, a thin thread on which to string various sorts of song, dance and stage business, revolves around a chance encounter between Ivan Karas (bass), an old Dnepr cossack (Zaporozhets), and the Turkish Sultan (baritone) travelling incognito, resulting in permission for all the cossacks beyond the Danube (that is, on Turkish territory) to resettle on Russian land. It has been suggested that the immediate inspiration for the opera was the mass repatriation of Ukrainian cossacks (many of them runaway serfs) following the emancipation in 1861. In any case, the work is in no sense an expression of Ukrainian (‘Little Russian’) nationalism. The composer, though Ukrainian-born, was a thoroughly Russified inhabitant of St Petersburg, and the opera glorifies Russian patriotism and benign authority (personified by the magnanimous sultan, reminiscent of Mozart’s Pasha Selim)....


(‘The Tsar Has his Photograph Taken’)

Opera buffa in one act, op.21, by Kurt Weill to a libretto by Georg Kaiser; Leipzig, Neues Theater, 18 February 1928.

In the Studio Angèle, Paris, the telephone rings. The Tsar (baritone) is in town and would like to have his photograph taken by the fashionable photographer Angèle (soprano). But before he arrives, terrorists burst in and take the place of the photographer and her assistants, who are gagged and bound. The ‘shooting’ of the Tsar turns into a pun around which the rest of the plot revolves: the camera is loaded with a pistol. The Tsar wants a picture of himself as an ordinary citizen. The terrorists want his life. To emphasize his undespotic urbanity he appears in a light suit (with the orchestra playing foxtrot rhythms). His response to the charms of his would-be assassin, the False Angèle (soprano), is also thoroughly human. Rather than be ‘shot’ by her, he wants to switch roles just as she is about to release the shutter. Cliff-hanging horseplay ensues, with the Tsar trying to photograph the False Angèle instead. Eventually she manages to reassume the photographer’s role, but is again interrupted on the count of three. It is the Equerry (bass), who briefly appears to warn of a plot against the Tsar. Just as the False Angèle seems to be warming to the Tsar’s advances, there is a further interruption and warning from the Equerry. With a view to escaping, the False Angèle places a recording of the seductive ‘Tango Angèle’ on the gramophone, requesting that the Tsar avert his gaze while she undresses. The kidnappers take flight just before the real Angèle and her assistants enter, followed by the police. The chorus, which has been commenting on the action all along and sharing the False Angèle’s secret with the audience, announces the final event just as it had done at the beginning: ‘The Tsar has his photograph taken’....