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John A. Rice

(‘Axur, King of Ormus’)

Dramma tragicomico in five acts by Antonio Salieri to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte after Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais libretto Tarare; Vienna, Burgtheater, 8 January 1788.

The opera was first conceived as a translation into Italian of Salieri’s last opera for Paris, Tarare (1787), but Da Ponte and Salieri abandoned the translation in favour of a new opera based freely on Beaumarchais’ libretto. Da Ponte’s text follows Tarare in general, but the two operas differ in many details and in some aspects of characterization. Beaumarchais’ King Atar is now called Axur (bass; sung by Francesco Benucci); Beaumarchais’ hero Tarare is now called Atar (tenor; Vincenzo Calvesi). In giving the hero the name of the original villain, Da Ponte may have been developing a point made by Beaumarchais himself when he gave his two principal characters names whose relation to one another are so clear (Atar – Axur; Tarare – Atar). Originally in five acts, ...


Andrew Lamb

Chinoiserie musicale in one act by Jacques Offenbach to a libretto by Ludovic Halévy ; Paris, Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens (Salle Choiseul), 29 December 1855.

A lighthearted piece of nonsense, the work opened the winter (later permanent) home of the Bouffes-Parisiens in the Passage Choiseul. It parodies Bellini in a mock-Italian quartet, ‘Morto! Morto! Infamio! Infamio! Morto!’, and also Meyerbeer’s ...


Linda Tyler

(‘The Pyramids of Babylon’)

Heroisch-komische Oper in two acts by Johann Mederitsch (Act 1) and Peter Winter (Act 2) to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder ; Vienna, Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, 25 October 1797.

This work received over 60 performances at the Theater auf der Wieden and played successfully in other cities as well. Like Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and other heroic-comic works, it is rich in temple scenes, sacred rites, priests, processions, magic and folk humour. The circuitous plot culminates in a ceremony at the pyramid, where Queen Ragunka (soprano) is instructed by the high priest Senides (bass) to choose the future king. She selects the young Timoneus (tenor) to the joy of his lover Cremona (soprano). The villains Artandos (bass) and Pitagoleus (bass) are defeated, while the servants Forte (bass) and Piana (soprano) provide comic relief. Each act features an introduction and a finale. The arias range from simple folklike numbers to elaborate, pathos-laden solos (Cremona’s ‘Ohne Mutter, ohne Gatten’ in Act 2 is an excellent example of the latter). The second half of the opera, composed by Winter, is distinguished by a fuller orchestral texture and more expansive polyphonic passages....


John C.G. Waterhouse

(‘The Bacchanals’)

Opera in a prologue and three acts by Giorgio Federico Ghedini to a libretto by Tullio Pinelli after Euripides ’ tragedy The Bacchae; Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 22 February 1948.

Composed in 1941–4 during his most richly creative period, Le baccanti is much the most impressive of Ghedini’s operas. Pinelli’s libretto remains true to the outline of Euripides’ tragedy, with a prominent part assigned to the chorus and a simple, boldly sculpted action. The total effect is stylized and oratorio-like: the musical influence of Oedipus rex, though by no means all-dominating, is appropriate enough as far as it goes.

Thebes is in the grip of the orgiastic new religion of Dionysus, much to the chagrin of the young king Pènteo [Pentheus] (tenor), whose own mother Agave (soprano) has become a devotee of the cult. When brought face to face with the god (Dioniso, baritone), Pentheus at first does not recognize him and rashly tries to imprison him. But he eventually agrees to go with Dionysus to Mount Cithaeron, the gathering-place of the maenads, whom he hopes to challenge but who promptly tear him to pieces. His head is then brought back to Thebes impaled on a thyrsus staff, carried by Agave: in her crazed state of mind, she is unable to recognize it as that of her son not (as she had imagined) of a lion; and only on reaching the city is she forced to see the truth by her father the old king Cadmo [Cadmus] (bass). Agave is condemned by Dionysus to spend the rest of her life as a wanderer, mourning Pentheus....



Harris S. Saunders

Dramma per musica [tragedia] in three acts by Francesco Gasparini to a libretto, Tamerlano, by Agostin Piovene (revised by Ippolito Zanelli) after Jacques Pradon’s tragedy Tamerlan, ou La mort de Bajazet; Reggio Emilia, Teatro Pubblico, Spring Fair 1719 (revised as Bajazette, Venice, Teatro S Samuele, Ascension Fair 1723; original version as Tamerlano, Venice, Teatro S Cassiano, 24 January 1711).

Of Gasparini’s three settings of this libretto, Tamerlano, the 1711 original, may have formed the basis for productions in Verona (1715), Udine (1716), Florence (Carnival 1717), Livorno (Carnival 1719) and Ancona (1719). For this second version he added new music, and Ippolito Zanelli, the Modena court poet, extensively rewrote Piovene’s libretto, notably in the final scene. The third setting, Bajazette, restores that scene to its original form; here the original Bajazet, Giovanni Paita, assumed the same role.

Bajazet (tenor), the Ottoman emperor, has been defeated and captured by Tamerlano [Tamerlane] (alto castrato), the Turko-Mongol conqueror. Tamerlane, though betrothed to Irene (soprano), Princess of Trebizond, whom he has never seen, determines to wed Bajazet’s daughter Asteria (soprano), ignorant of her love for Andronico [Andronicus] (contralto), a Greek prince and Tamerlane’s dependent. Bajazet rejects the proposed marriage, but Asteria pretends to agree to it as part of a plot to kill Tamerlane; the plot is however foiled when Irene, disguised as a handmaiden, intervenes. A grateful Tamerlane consents to marry Irene, and, moved by Bajazet’s suicide, pardons Asteria and allows her to marry Andronicus....


Andrew Stiller

Opera in two acts by Douglas S(tuart) Moore to a libretto by John Latouche; Central City, Colorado, Opera House, 7 July 1956.

Moore had been attracted to the story of Elizabeth ‘Baby Doe’ Tabor as early as 1935 when he read accounts of her being found frozen to death near the abandoned mine where she had maintained a vigil since the death of her husband 36 years earlier. Nonetheless, no opera resulted until the Central City Opera Association suggested that subject in 1953. Following the première, projected revisions were halted by the death of Latouche (August 1956), after one new scene (Act 2 scene ii) and an additional aria for Baby Doe had been added. The revised version was first performed by the New York City Opera on 3 April 1958, with Beverly Sills as Baby Doe.

The complicated story is a true one, though some events have been compressed in time or space. The opera opens outside the Tabor Opera House, Leadville, Colorado, in ...


Gordana Lazarevich

(‘The Ballerina in Love’)

Commedia per musica in three acts by Domenico Cimarosa to a libretto by Giuseppe Palomba ; Naples, Teatro dei Fiorentini, 6 October 1782.

Madama Rubiconda Zampetti (soprano), a ballet dancer of some reputation, and the prima donna Ortensia (soprano) both believe that they will never suffer from a lack of masculine attention and mistakenly see themselves as rivals in love. Rubiconda however is in love with Don Totomaglio (bass), a foolish and ignorant doctoral student, and Ortensia with a rich Englishman, Cavaliere Bireno (tenor). Complications arise through the machinations of the innkeeper Bettina (soprano), Mazzacogna (bass; also known as Sgranerino), Don Petronio (bass), who pretends to be Ortensia’s father, and the young Frenchman Monsù Franchiglione (tenor), who earlier had jilted Ortensia. In the end, Bireno, disgusted by the infidelity of women, refuses to marry; Franchiglione marries Ortensia and Rubiconda marries Totomaglio.

At the première the role of Totomaglio was sung in Neapolitan dialect; for performances outside Naples, however, Totomaglio’s text was changed to Tuscan Italian, peppered with garbled Latin to caricature his pseudo-scholarly aura. Of particular musical interest is Totomaglio’s effective ...


Caroline Wood

(‘Ballet of the Seasons’)

Opéra-ballet in a prologue and four entrées by Pascal Collasse to a libretto by Abbé Jean Pic; Paris, Opéra, 14, 15 or 18 October 1695.

The Ballet des saisons is an important precursor of the full-blown opéra-ballet. Like Campra’s L’Europe galante (1697), the Ballet des saisons is a series of self-contained entrées linked by a common thread, but unlike its successor, it still features the gods and mythological characters of the tragédie en musique and its divertissements. After a conventional prologue extolling Louis XIV, each scene features a different couple to illustrate love’s ‘seasons’: Zephyrus (haute-contre) and Flora (soprano) for spring (‘L’amour coquet’); Vertumnus (bass) and Pomona (soprano) for summer (‘L’amour constant et fidèle’); Bacchus (bass) and Ariadne (soprano) for autumn (‘L’amour paisible’); and Boreas (bass) and Orithyia (soprano) for winter (‘L’amour brutal’). In the score of 1700, Collasse reinstates some instrumental numbers by Lully which in his preface he says he had been unable to print in the first edition....


Roger Parker

(‘A Masked Ball’)

Melodramma in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi to a libretto by Antonio Somma after Eugène Scribe’s libretto Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué; Rome, Teatro Apollo, 17 February 1859.

By February 1857 Verdi had agreed to write a new opera for the Teatro S Carlo in Naples, to be performed in the carnival season 1857–8. His first idea was to use King Lear, a setting of which he had planned with the playwright Antonio Somma, but (not for the first time) the S Carlo singers were not to his liking and the project was postponed. By September 1857 the composer was becoming anxious about his approaching deadline, and eventually proposed to Somma and the S Carlo – albeit with some reservations about the libretto’s conventionality – that he set a remodelled and translated version of an old Scribe libretto entitled Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué, written for Auber in 1833...


Dezső Legány

Historical dramatic opera in three acts by Ferenc Erkel to a libretto by Béni Egressy after József Katona’s play Bánk bán; Pest, National Theatre, 9 March 1861.

While King Endre II was at war over the Carpathian Mountains, which formed the frontier of Hungary, his power-drunk wife, Gertrud, from Meran in the Tyrol, filled the royal household with her foreign courtiers and lived with them in the greatest luxury. Eventually she and her courtiers were killed in a revolt in 1213. Katona’s fine drama (1815) based on this story of tragic conflict between strong historical characters is a mirror of Hungary’s centuries-old struggle against foreign despotism. For that reason its performance was forbidden by the censor. The play was published in book form but was forgotten for two decades before being staged successfully. After the failure of the war of independence in 1848–9, it was again banned for many years....


Andrew Lamb


Opéra bouffe in three acts by Jacques Offenbach to a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy ; Paris, Théâtre des Variétés, 5 February 1866.

Widowed for the fifth time, squire Bluebeard (tenor) sends his alchemist Popolani (baritone) to find a virtuous peasant girl to become wife number six. Popolani holds a raffle for the honour, but the winner is the promiscuous Boulotte (soprano). Meanwhile Count Oscar (baritone), court chamberlain to King Bobèche (baritone), has recovered the King’s 18-year-old daughter, Princess Hermia (soprano), abandoned as a baby and now living as the shepherdess Fleurette. In Act 2, in King Bobèche’s palace, the King attempts to persuade Princess Hermia to marry Prince Saphir (tenor), but she refuses until she discovers that the Prince is none other than her own shepherd lover. Boulotte soon proves too much for Bluebeard, but Popolani rebels at being required to dispose of yet another wife. It transpires that the previous five have merely been given sleeping draughts, and Popolani sets off with them from his laboratory to the palace, bent on revenge. In Act 3 the wedding procession of the Prince and Princess is under way in the palace when Bluebeard arrives, announces Boulotte’s demise, and claims the Princess for his next wife. Then Popolani arrives with the six wives, accompanied by five courtiers supposedly put to death for flirting with the Queen. The situation is resolved by marrying off the five ex-wives and five supposed lovers, leaving Princess Hermia to Prince Saphir, and Bluebeard to Boulotte....


Lionel Salter

(‘The Little Barber of Lavapiés’)

Zarzuela in three acts by Francisco Asenjo Barbieri to a libretto by Luis Mariano de Larra; Madrid, Teatro de la Zarzuela, 18 December 1874.

The plot (loosely based on historical fact) is set in 1766 during the reign of Carlos III. Lamparilla (tenor), a latter-day Figaro, is barber and general factotum in a working-class district of Madrid. He and his sweetheart Paloma (mezzo-soprano), a seamstress, inadvertently become caught up in a plot hatched by the Infanta to replace the hated Italian prime minister Grimaldi by Floridablanca. The Infanta’s lady-in-waiting, the Marquesita Estrella (soprano), has come to the park of El Pardo for a clandestine meeting with Don Juan (bass), one of the chief conspirators, but they are seen in furtive conversation by her fiancé, Don Luis (tenor), Grimaldi’s nephew, who not unnaturally draws the wrong conclusions and reproaches her for infidelity, though she endeavours to reassure him. Their discovery by Luis makes it essential to send a warning to Floridablanca. The Marquesita needs someone to escort her discreetly across the city, and Paloma (whom she knows) persuades Lamparilla to do so; but the chief of police has been tipped off, and Lamparilla, to his bewilderment, finds himself under arrest. At the beginning of Act 2 he is released, and is again induced to divert attention – by organizing a crowd to smash street lamps – from the conspirators’ spiriting Floridablanca into the royal palace through a secret passage. In Act 3 the Marquesita, who is being hunted by the police, is kept hidden by Paloma, who disguises her as a working girl and, with the help of Lamparilla and Luis (who has decided that his love is more important than his political loyalties), plans her escape. The police raid Paloma’s workshop, but Lamparilla suddenly brings the news that the king has dismissed Grimaldi and they are now safe – all but Luis, who has to go into exile, but with Estrella happy to go with him....


Amanda Glauert

(‘The Barber of Baghdad’)

Komische Oper in two acts by Peter Cornelius to his own libretto after a story from The Thousand and One Nights; Weimar, Hoftheater, 15 December 1858.

Cornelius began writing the text of Der Barbier von Bagdad in September 1855. His friend and patron Liszt initially disapproved of the subject matter, but later became intimately involved with the work’s evolution. The text was finished in November 1856 and the music in February 1858. The première in Weimar succeeded musically, with Liszt conducting, Roth appearing as the Barber, Caspari as Nureddin and Rosa von Milde-Agthe as Margiana, but the occasion was marred by a demonstration against the conductor; Liszt left his position at Weimar and the opera was never performed again in Cornelius’s lifetime.

Der Barbier remained closely associated with Liszt. It was he who orchestrated the new overture that Cornelius wrote shortly before his death, and who subsequently interested Felix Mottl in the work. Mottl first conducted his shortened and revised form of the opera in Karlsruhe on ...


Thomas Bauman

(‘The Barber of Seville’)

Komische Oper in four acts by Friedrich Ludwig Benda (see Benda family (opera) §(3)) to a libretto by Grossmann, Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm, adapted from Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin (opera)’ play Le barbier de Séville; Leipzig, Theater am Rannstädter Tor, 7 May 1776.

Grossmann originally translated Beaumarchais’ play more or less faithfully for the Seyler company. Seyler persuaded him to adapt it as a comic opera and it was in this form, with Benda’s music, that the play was generally performed in Germany during the 18th century. Unlike the simple tunes Beaumarchais had gathered and published with the original text, Benda’s vocal numbers – 13 in all – have nothing Spanish about them. Italianate showpieces for the company’s best voices predominate; the part of Rosina (soprano) is particularly ornate and virtuoso, a vehicle for the prima donna Josepha Hellmuth....


Gordana Lazarevich

[Il barbiere di Siviglia, ovvero La precauzione inutile (‘The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution’)]

Dramma giocoso in four acts by Giovanni Paisiello to a libretto probably by Giuseppe Petrosellini after Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais’ play Le barbier de Séville; St Petersburg, Hermitage, 15/26 September 1782.

The text is a free adaptation of Le barbier de Séville, the first play of Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy. The second play, Le mariage de Figaro, ou La folle journée, was reworked by Da Ponte and set to music by Mozart as Le nozze di Figaro (1786). The success of Beaumarchais’ Le barbier de Séville, performed in St Petersburg in 1780, prompted Paisiello to write an opera based on the play. His dedication to Catherine II refers to the earlier work: ‘Since Your Imperial Majesty had a taste of Le barbier de Séville, I thought that the same piece set as an opera would not displease you; consequently I have made an extract from it which I have attempted to render as short as possible, conserving … the expressions of the original piece without adding anything’....


Richard Osborne

[Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione (‘Almaviva, or The Useless Precaution’)] (‘The Barber of Seville’)

Commedia in two acts by Gioachino Rossini to a libretto by Cesare Sterbini after Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais Le barbier de Séville and the libretto often attributed to Giuseppe Petrosellini for Giovanni Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (1782, St Petersburg); Rome, Teatro Argentina, 20 February 1816.

Beaumarchais’ play Le barbier de Séville had been used as a subject for opera by a number of composers before Rossini. Of these by far the most successful was Paisiello; indeed, the continuing popularity of his Il barbiere di Siviglia (1782) obliged Rossini to issue a number of public and private disclaimers in which he extolled the virtues of Paisiello’s art and affirmed the newness of his own treatment of the Beaumarchais play. This was further underlined by Rossini’s choice of an alternative title for his opera, Almaviva. The present title was not used until the Bologna revival of August 1816, two months after Paisiello’s death. Rossini had signed the contract for the opera on ...


Peter P. Pachl

(‘The Bear-Skinner’)

Opera in three acts was by Siegfried Wagner (see Wagner family (opera) §(3)) to his own libretto; Munich, Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater, 22 January 1899.

Based on two fairy-tales by the brothers Grimm, the opera is set in medieval Franconia. Hans Kraft (tenor), a young soldier, returns home to find his mother dead. Refused hospitality by villagers, he accepts an offer from the Devil (buffo bass) to work in hell, guarding the souls of sinners. There he is visited by a Stranger (baritone), who is really St Peter in disguise. They play a game of dice, which results in Hans’s losing all the souls to heaven. Hans is subsequently punished by the Devil, who sentences him to wander the earth dressed only in a bearskin, covered with soot and unable to wash. He can be redeemed only by a faithful woman. On his travel he stops at an inn (Act 2) and helps the mayor, Melchior Fröhlich (bass) by paying his debts to the landlord, Nikolaus Spitz (...


(‘The Barometer-Maker on the Enchanted Island’)

Zauberposse in two acts by Wenzel Müller to a libretto by Ferdinand Raimund; Vienna, Theater in der Leopoldstadt, 18 December 1823.

Subtitled ‘parody of the fairy-tale: Prince Tutu’, this play was based on the story ‘Die Prinzessin mit der langen Nase’ in Wieland’s collection Dschinnistan. The shipwrecked Viennese barometer-maker Quecksilber (tenor) has come into possession of a magic staff but is tricked out of it by Princess Zoraide (spoken), who later also gains his magic horn and sash. He gets his own back by giving her magic figs that make her nose grow unattractively 1ong and recovers his possessions by tricking her with an ineffective antidote, then marries her charming servant Linda (soprano) before setting off for home. Several of the 22 songs and dances are more extensive and adventurous than usual at this late stage of Müller’s career, though it is the tuneful songs that have worn best. Der Barometermacher...


John Tyrrell

[Prodaná nevěsta]

Comic opera in three acts by Bedřich Smetana to a libretto by Karel Sabina; Prague, Provisional Theatre, 30 May 1866 (definitive version, Prague, Provisional Theatre, 25 September 1870).

Smetana commissioned a libretto for a comic opera from Sabina, librettist for his first opera (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia) and, according to his diary entry on 5 July 1863, received it apparently in the form of a one-act piece. On 1 September 1864 the periodical Slavoj announced that Smetana had completed the overture to a two-act opera of which he had now received the first act. As yet the opera had no name: it may well be, as František Bartoš (1955) speculates, that the ‘comic overture by Smetana’ played at the Umělecká Beseda on 18 November 1863 (in a four-hand arrangement) was the already completed overture to The Bartered Bride. Smetana seems to have finished the piano sketch during the first months of ...


Andrew Clements

Opera seria with intermezzo in one act (four movements) by Hans Werner Henze to a libretto by W(ystan) H(ugh) Auden and Chester Kallman after Euripides’ The Bacchae; Salzburg, Grosses Festspielhaus, 6 August 1966.

Henze’s second collaboration with Auden and Kallman, after the successful première of Elegy for Young Lovers, was commissioned by the Salzburg Festival. The libretto was prepared in 1963, but Henze did not begin work on the score until more than a year later, after he had completed Der junge Lord. The first performance (in German) was conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi with a cast led by Ingeborg Hallstein, Kerstin Meyer, Vera Little, Loren Driscoll, Helmut Melchert, Kostas Paskalis, William Dooley and Peter Lagger; the première of the original English-language version took place at Santa Fe in 1967, conducted by the composer. In 1974 it was staged by the ENO at the London Coliseum, with a cast that included Josephine Barstow, Katherine Pring, Anne Collins, Gregory Dempsey, Kenneth Woollam, Norman Welsby and Tom McDonnell; Henze conducted and directed the performances. A concert performance at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in ...