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Francesco Bussi

(‘In the Lower Port’)

Lyric drama in three acts by Nicola Spinelli to a libretto by Eugenio Checchi (‘Tom’) after Goffredo Cognetti’s play Scene napoletane; in German, translated by Ludwig Hartmann and Otto Hess as Am untern Hafen, Cologne, Stadttheater, 18 April 1894 (first Italian performance, Rome, Teatro Costanzi, 11 March 1895).

The action takes place in the via Acquaquilia, in the port area of Naples, among camorristi (a mafia-type secret society). Se’ Maria (dramatic soprano) and Ciccillo o’ Luciano, a camorristo (baritone), were betrothed, but almost at once he fell in love with Carmela, against whom the jealous Maria made false accusations which led to Carmela’s early death and Ciccillo’s imprisonment; Maria then married another man. Now she feels remorse (‘Se è ver, Ciccillo, che un giorno solo’), but Ciccillo, full of hatred, swears to avenge himself by reducing Maria to poverty and ruining her children, Luigino (tenor) and Sesella (soprano). In Act 2, the ...


Julian Rushton

(‘Bastien and Bastienne’)

Singspiel in one act, K 50/46 b, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to a libretto by Friedrich Wilhelm Weiskern and Johann Müller and revised by Johann Andreas Schachtner after Marie-Justine-Benoîte Favart and Harny de Guerville’s opéra comique Les amours de Bastien et Bastienne; Vienna, F. A. Mesmer’s house, September–October 1768.

Favart and Guerville’s realistic parody of Rousseau’s Le devin du village appeared in Vienna in 1755 and was translated in 1764. It was used in children’s theatre and was possibly performed in Salzburg in 1766. For Mozart, Schachtner made alterations and improvements, including versification of the dialogue. The performance in Vienna at Mesmer’s house in 1768 used spoken dialogue; Mozart later set some of it as recitative. The opera may have been revived in Salzburg in 1774.

Bastien (tenor) has shown signs of fickleness but Bastienne (soprano), advised by the ‘magician’ Colas (bass), wins him back by feigning indifference, even encouraging him to drown himself. Pastoral innocence is reflected in the short melodious arias (...


Tragedia lirica in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano after Joseph Méry’s play La bataille de Toulouse; Rome, Teatro Argentina, 27 January 1849.

The revolutions that swept through Italy and much of the rest of Europe in 1848 – and in particular Milan’s ‘cinque giornate’, when the Milanese forced the Austrian soldiers from their city – inspired Verdi to attempt an opera in which the theme of patriotism would be overt. Together with his librettist Cammarano, he eventually decided to compose an opera set in 12th-century Italy, the epoch of the Lombard league, adapting for the purpose a recent French drama. Work on La battaglia di Legnano took up most of 1848, and by the time it was finished Milan and many other cities were long back in Austrian hands. But Rome was still a beleaguered republic, and the premiére of the opera took place there in what must have been highly charged circumstances. It was a clamorous success, with the entire final act encored. The cast included Filippo Colini (Rolando), Teresa De Giuli Borsi (Lida) and Gaetano Fraschini (Arrigo). However, the opera was extremely difficult to get past the censors in the repressive, counter-revolutionary atmosphere of the 1850s, and never firmly established itself in the repertory. In the mid-1850s Verdi voiced the intention of rehabilitating ...


Malcolm Boyd

Opera in three acts, op.83, by Alun Hoddinott to a libretto by Glyn Jones after Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story; Cardiff, New Theatre, 26 March 1974.

Wiltshire (baritone) and Case (baritone) are traders on a South Sea island. Case finds a half-caste bride for Wiltshire in Uma (mezzo-soprano) and then puts it about that she had been promised to one of the native chiefs. The islanders refuse to trade with Wiltshire, but with the help of the priest, Father Galuchet (tenor), he finds and destroys the voodoo shrine which is the source of Case’s power over the natives. Case confronts him, reveals his own complicity in the deaths of previous traders, and is killed by Wiltshire. The music combines an evenly paced arioso style with vivid orchestral writing....


Michael Kennedy

Extravaganza in one act by William Walton to a libretto by Paul Dehn and Walton after a vaudeville by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov; Aldeburgh, Jubilee Hall, 3 June 1967.

Madam Popova (mezzo-soprano), an attractive widow, is reproved by her manservant Luka (bass) for prolonging her period of mourning: she should start to go out again. Life is over, she says; she will mourn for the rest of her life. Luka points out that her husband had not been faithful and scarcely deserved this devotion. She should have the horse Toby put into harness and call on the neighbours. No, Popova replies, give Toby an extra bag of oats. Her reveries about the past are interrupted by Smirnov (baritone), who has forced his way in. He is a landowner and wants immediate payment of 1300 roubles owed by Popova’s late husband for oats for the horse. She walks out in a huff and in her absence he laments that ‘creditors appear and debtors vanish’. On her return, he parodies the Russian aristocrat’s use of French (‘Madame, je vous prie’). Put off these widow’s weeds, he urges, and unveil like Salome (quotation from Strauss in the orchestra). They argue again. Are men more faithful in love than women, she asks rhetorically, and sings an aria (‘I was a constant, faithful wife’) in which she details her husband’s frequent infidelities. Smirnov remarks that in spite of her mourning, she still powders her face. She calls him a boor and a bear and asks Luka to show him the door. This interchange leads to Smirnov’s challenge to a duel – sex equality. By now he is genuinely attracted by her spirited behaviour and flashing eyes. Popova fetches her husband’s pistol but Smirnov has to show her how to fire it and tells her he will fire into the air. ‘Get out’, she orders, but he pauses at the door and their eyes meet to a Puccinian motif in the orchestra. They continue their quarrel, but she has now fallen for him. No oats for Toby today, she decrees....


Simon Maguire, Elizabeth Forbes and Julian Budden

Tragedia lirica in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini to a libretto by Felice Romani after Carlo Tedaldi-Fores’s play Beatrice di Tenda; Venice, Teatro La Fenice, 16 March 1833.

By 24 May 1832 Bellini had agreed to write another opera for La Fenice, for which he had composed I Capuleti e i Montecchi in 1830. The new work would be expressly written for Giuditta Pasta; Romani had chosen the subject of Cristina di Svezia (after Dumas), but in October Bellini, for the first time in their collaboration, forced a new subject on Romani, Beatrice di Tenda, prompted by Pasta’s enthusiasm for Monticini’s ballet which she had recently seen in Milan. He hoped that Romani would play down the similarities to his libretto for Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and would draw instead on Schiller’s Maria Stuart for the ending.

Bellini reached Venice on 8 December 1832 in order to stage Norma with Pasta, but Romani was simultaneously at work on five other librettos and did not arrive until ...


D. Kern Holoman

(‘Beatrice and Benedick’)

Opéra in two acts by Hector Berlioz to his own libretto after William Shakespeare ’s Much Ado about Nothing; Baden-Baden, Theater der Stadt, 9 August 1862.

The celebrated overture, though not a pot-pourri in the usual sense, characterizes the substance of the opera by alluding to quite a number of passages to follow. The first act takes place in the garden of Léonato [Leonato] (spoken), governor of Messina in Sicily. The townspeople rejoice that the invading Moors have fled from Don Pedro (bass) and his force. Soon the victors will be home, and Héro [Hero] (soprano) will be reunited with her intended, Claudio (baritone). Less pleased is Béatrice [Beatrice] (soprano), her cousin, to contemplate the return of Bénédict [Benedick] (tenor), with whom she has long enjoyed ‘a kind of merry war’. Those so far assembled dance a sicilienne based on Berlioz’s first published song, Le dépit de la bergère (...


Lionel Salter

Opera in two acts, op.38, by Alberto Ginastera to a libretto by William Shand and Alberto Girri; Washington, DC, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 10 September 1971.

The opera is set in Rome and Petrella at the end of the 16th century (the librettists claim that Shelley’s verse-play The Cenci was not one of their basic sources). The insanely cruel, depraved and sadistic Count Francesco Cenci (baritone) has ordered a great banquet and ball which his daughter Beatrix (soprano) and her stepmother Lucrecia (mezzo-soprano) are commanded to attend. Beatrix, filled with forebodings of evil, asks her former suitor Orsino (tenor), now a priest, to take a letter to the Pope pleading for him to save her from her father’s tyranny; but when she has gone he destroys the letter, wishing to be her sole protector. At the masked ball Cenci gloatingly announces that two of his sons have been killed in Spain; the guests leave in horror. Alone, the drunken Cenci voices his incestuous desire for Beatrix. Meanwhile Orsino tells her that the Pope has rejected her appeal; but on hearing Cenci approach he cravenly flees. Lucrecia hears Beatrix’s terrified scream as Cenci rapes her. In Act 2 Beatrix, anguished by her violation, is hiding herself away. Her brother Giacomo (bass) hires two assassins to avenge his sister. Beatrix slips a sleeping-draught into the Count’s wine, and he enters a delirium, believing he hears the voices of his enemies in the baying of his mastiffs (the representation of which is one of the dramatic high points of the work). Urged on by Beatrix, the assassins stab him. But later his body is found, and the family is arrested. Orsino, fearful for his own safety, abandons the family, who are all tortured, Beatrix on a wheel in a prison of the Castel Sant’Angelo. Bidding farewell to her young brother Bernardo (tenor), she goes forth calmly to execution....


Robert D. Hume

Ballad opera in three acts arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch to a libretto by John Gay ; London, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 29 January 1728.

The Beggar’s Opera took London by storm, and it remains one of the most frequently performed operatic works in English. There was no precedent or model for the work. Gay was a disappointed seeker of court patronage at the time of the première. A friend of Pope and Swift, he had written seven mostly undistinguished plays and a fair quantity of verse.

The ballad opera form that he created virtually out of nothing consists of spoken dialogue interspersed with thematically relevant songs, taken from a variety of mostly popular sources. Of the 69 songs, 28 have been traced to English ballads and 23 to popular Irish, Scottish and French tunes. The remaining 18 are drawn from Purcell (3), John Barrett (2), Jeremiah Clarke (2), Handel (2), Henry Carey (2), Bononcini, John Eccles, possibly Geminiani, John Wilford, Pepusch, Frescobaldi and Lewis Ramondon. The overture is based on ‘One evening, having lost my way’, an air in Act 3. The musical arrangement is usually credited to Pepusch, but there is no definite evidence to support this statement. Most of the tunes were extremely familiar to the original audience, and Gay was clever at creating ironic overtones and interplay between the music and his new lyrics. For example, the heroic overtones of the original words for Purcell’s melody clang oddly against the very ugly sexual realities of Polly’s ‘Virgins are like the fair Flower’....


Nicholas Williams

[Die Wiedertäufer (‘The Anabaptists’)]

Opera in three acts by Alexander Goehr to a libretto by John McGrath and the composer; Duisburg, Deutsche Oper am Rhein, 19 April 1985.

In 1534 two Dutch Anabaptist prophets, the idealistic Matthys (baritone) and the insidious Bokelson (tenor), preach news of the Second Coming and turn the prosperous city of Münster into the ‘City of God’. Inflamed by desire for a better world, the people cast aside material and sexual conventions. Their hope is expressed through the chorus (turba), while the historical forces are projected on to a small group of individuals, the Berninck family. As in Goehr’s Sonata about Jerusalem (1970), treating a similar subject, the outcome is a double betrayal of the collective dream: from within, by the people’s misplaced trust in the delusions of the megalomaniacal Bokelson; and from without, by the power of the establishment represented by the local Prince Bishop (baritone), for whom the Anabaptists’ disruption of traditional values is a dangerous source of social anarchy. Münster is finally recaptured, and the Anabaptists massacred. But in the work’s closing bars, the figure of Divara (soprano), emblematic of the pure messianic spirit, confirms the permanence of the flawed Utopian ideal....


Clive Brown

(‘The Two Pedagogues’)

Singspiel in one act by Felix Mendelssohn (-Bartholdy) to a libretto by Johann Ludwig Casper after Eugène Scribe’s comedy Les deux précepteurs, ou Asinus asinum fricat; private performance, Berlin, ?1821 (first public performance, Berlin, 27 May 1962).

Die beiden Pädagogen was Mendelssohn’s third operatic effort, although he was only 12 years old when he composed it. It was performed shortly after its completion before an audience of family and friends in the Mendelssohns’ house in Berlin. The music is resourcefully matched to the requirements of the plot and contains some effective characterization.

Herr von Robert (bass), a wealthy landowner, insists that his young son Carl (tenor) should apply himself to his studies, though Carl is much more interested in his amorous feelings for his cousin Elise (soprano). Other characters include the gardener’s girl, Hannchen (soprano), who has had an unhappy love affair in Vienna, and her uncle, the schoolmaster Kinderschreck (bass), whose name (‘scare-child’) suggests his educational approach. A terzetto between Carl, Elise and Hannchen shows Mendelssohn’s familiarity with Mozart’s technique of contrasting a unified pair of characters with a third whose vocal line is of a different nature. In an aria Kinderschreck relishes the sound of the cane. The Viennese professor engaged by Robert as tutor to his son is impersonated by the professor’s servant, Luftig (bass); Hannchen, however, recognizes Luftig as her former lover and threatens to expose him unless he marries her. In an effective quartet, Luftig and Kinderschreck dispute the merits of Pestalozzi’s and Basedow’s educational theories, to the astonishment of Carl and his father. Luftig is eventually exposed, but the piece ends happily when Robert abandons his unrealistic plans and the two young couples are betrothed....


Clive Brown

(‘The Two Riflemen’)

Komische Oper in three acts by Albert Lortzing to his own libretto after G. Cords’s comedy Die beiden Grenadiere, in turn derived from Joseph Patrat’s libretto for Grétry’s Les méprises par ressemblance and Patrat’s rearrangement of this as the comedy Les deux grenadiers, ou Les quiproquos; Leipzig, Stadttheater, 20 February 1837.

The plot, set in a German village at the turn of the 19th century, hinges on a rather improbable case of mistaken identity. The innkeeper Busch (bass), whose partial deafness makes him a comic figure, awaits the return of his son Gustav (tenor) from the army after many years. He expects a marriage between Gustav and Caroline (soprano), daughter of the local magistrate, Wall (bass). However, Busch mistakes another returning soldier, Wilhelm (baritone), Wall’s son, for his own son. Wilhelm’s comrade Schwarzbard (bass) encourages his friend to go along with the misconception for the fun of it. Wilhelm is at first reluctant, but agrees when he sees and falls for Busch’s daughter Suschen (soprano). The second act begins with the magistrate’s cousin Peter (tenor) complaining to his relative that he has been manhandled by a soldier (Wilhelm) at the inn. Gustav, who is portrayed in sharp contrast to the lusty Wilhelm, finally returns; he meets Caroline and they are attracted to one another. When he goes to the inn his father will not believe he is his son. Peter and Wall arrive, and Peter takes Gustav, wearing the same uniform as Wilhelm, for the soldier who mistreated him. Gustav is unable to prove his identity; they search Wilhelm’s trunk and papers, believing they are Gustav’s, but he sticks to his story even when they find a winning lottery ticket among the papers. The penultimate number of the opera, a septet which takes place in almost total darkness, provides the opportunity for further comic confusion as the two pairs of lovers and the other principal characters become mixed up. In the ensuing dialogue everything is resolved and a short finale concludes the work....


John C.G. Waterhouse

Comic opera in a prologue, two acts and an epilogue by Ottorino Respighi to a libretto by Claudio Guastalla after Ercole Luigi Morselli’s play of the same name (c1919); Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 26 April 1923.

Only a tenuous thread links this opera to Machiavelli’s pungently humorous tale with the same title: here too the devil Belfagor (baritone) has been sent into the world to find out why so many damned souls attribute their fall from grace to the evil influence of their wives. In Morselli’s version (as further modified by Guastalla), he sets about this by marrying the idealistic Candida (soprano) against her wishes. She is totally devoted to the young sailor Baldo (tenor); yet Belfagor gets his way after bribing her father Mirocleto (bass). Having taken the human form of a rich merchant, the susceptible devil genuinely falls in love with the girl; but she stubbornly refuses to consummate the marriage, and the church bells, in sympathy with her, remain obstinately silent from the wedding day onwards. When Baldo returns after a period at sea, Candida escapes with him, helped by her mother Olimpia (mezzosoprano). But Belfagor, now disguised as a tramp, arouses the sailor’s jealousy by suggesting that Candida may, after all, have betrayed him during his absence. Her innocence is finally confirmed by the church bells, which suddenly and miraculously break their long silence....


William Ashbrook

Tragedia lirica in three acts by Gaetano Donizetti to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano after Luigi Marchionni’s adaptation of Eduard von Schenk’s Belisarius (1820, Munich); Venice, Teatro La Fenice, 4 February 1836.

The action takes place in Byzantium and near the high mountain passes of Emo in the 6th century ad. While the public, including Belisarius’s daughter Irene (mezzo-soprano), are eager to hail the victorious general on his return, his wife Antonina (soprano) tells the captain of the imperial guards, Eutropio (tenor), that she believes Belisarius responsible for the death of their son. After being greeted by Emperor Justinian (bass), Belisarius (baritone) frees his prisoners; but one, Alamiro (tenor), refuses to leave his side, revealing that he is a Greek, although raised by a barbarian along the shores of the Bosphorus. Belisarius accepts him as a replacement for the son he has lost. Their duet, ‘Sul campo della gloria’, is an early but arresting example of the friendship duet, a genre Verdi was to exploit. Entering, Eutropio demands Belisarius’s sword, bidding him appear for trial; but Belisarius will yield his sword only to a brave man and hands it instead to Alamiro. On the basis of forged documents Belisarius is accused of plotting to seize the imperial throne; shown the evidence, Belisarius sees treasonable additions to his letters to Antonina. When he asks her to denounce the forgeries, she claims that the documents have not been altered and, further, publicly accuses him of filicide. Belisarius confesses to having ordered his son’s death as the result of a dream that had told him that only by so doing could he save the Byzantine Empire from destruction. The universal shock is expressed in the slow section of the Act 1 finale....


John C.G. Waterhouse

(‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Forest’)

Fiaba musicale in three short acts by Ottorino Respighi to a libretto by Gian Bistolfi, after Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale; original version (as La bella addormentata nel bosco) for puppets, Rome, Teatro dei Piccoli di Podrecca, Palazzo Odescalchi (Sala Verdi), 13 April 1922 (revised and reorchestrated for child mimes, Turin, Teatro di Torino, 9 April 1934; second revised version with new ending by Gian Luca Tocchi, RAI, 13 June 1967).

Bistolfi’s adaptation of the familiar Perrault fairy-tale, though faithful to its broad outline, is full of naively whimsical details that must have suited the opera’s original purpose admirably. For instance, the spindle on which the Princess (soprano) pricks her finger is itself a ‘singing’ role, and the spiders who weave the web around her as she sleeps likewise have voices that sing on their behalf. Moreover, in Bistolfi’s version the long sleep lasts into the 20th century: the Prince (tenor) is first seen taking part in a paper chase, along with a rich American (Mr Dollar, speaking role) whose limited ‘tourist’ Italian leads him to misunderstand the nature of the ‘sleeping beauty’ completely....


John A. Rice

(‘The Beautiful Fishermaiden’)

Commedia per musica in two acts by Pietro Alessandro Guglielmi (see Guglielmi family (opera) §(1)) to a librerto by Zini, Francesco Saverio; Naples, Teatro Nuovo, October 1789.

Count Lumaca (bass) loves Dorinda (soprano), the daughter of a fisherman. His attempts to transform her into a gentlewoman are unsuccessful; she becomes arrogant and pretentious, and, what is worse, takes a male companion (cicisbeo), Celidoro (tenor). The opera ends happily when Lumaca renounces Dorinda and she returns to her true place in society. Don Alfonso (bass), who passes himself off as an itinerant dancing-master, enlivens the proceedings with buffo antics in Neapolitan dialect and contributes to the happy ending: he meets Dorinda at the seaside and they fall in love.

The Neapolitan librettist Zini seems to have maintained close ties with Guglielmi between 1788 and 1791, during which time they produced at least five operas together. La belle pescatrice...


Andrew Lamb

(‘The Fair Helen’)

Opéra bouffe in three acts by Jacques Offenbach to a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, after classical mythology; Paris, Théâtre des Variétés, 17 December 1864.

La belle Hélène followed Orphée aux enfers of six years earlier as a satirical treatment of the classics, and as a very thinly disguised comment on many aspects of Second Empire society life. It was one of Offenbach’s greatest successes. Above all others of his works, it was epitomized in the music he composed for Hortense Schneider in the role of Helen, and secondarily in that for José Dupuis in the role of Paris. Other members of Offenbach’s standard company of the time were Grenier (Calchas), Couder (Agamemnon) and Kopp (Menelaus). Later famous Helens have included Maria Jeritza in 1911 at Salzburg, Jarmila Novotna in 1931 in Berlin (both productions by Max Reinhardt) and, in recent years, Jane Rhodes, while Jussi Björling’s recording of Paris’s ‘Au mont Ida’ has set the standard by which other versions are judged....


Thomas Bauman

[ Belmont und Constanze, oder Die Entführung aus dem Serail (‘Belmont and Constanze, or The Abduction from the Seraglio’)]

Komische Oper in three acts by Christian Ludwig Dieter to a libretto by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner ; Stuttgart, Kleines Theater an der Planie (Herzogliche Nationale Schaubühne), 27 August 1784.

Dieter, who favoured texts by north German writers during the 1780s, set Bretzner’s libretto exactly as he had written it (apparently for Johann André; ...


Thomas Bauman

[ Belmont und Constanze, oder Die Entführung aus dem Serail (‘Belmont and Constanze, or The Abduction from the Seraglio’)]

Operette in three acts by Johann André ; to a libretto by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner ; Berlin, Theater in der Behrenstrasse (Döbbelin Company), 25 May 1781.

The libretto was later set by Christian Ludwig Dieter (1784, Stuttgart; see Belmont und Constanze ) and Anton Joseph Kuzzi (1796, St Petersburg); it was revised by Gottlieb Stephanie the younger for Mozart as Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782, Vienna), a version also set by Joseph Heinrich Knecht (1787, Biberach).

Bretzner’s story of attempted escape by Westerners in an exotic setting joined an extensive family tree of plays and operas with various traits in common (principally Dryden, Don Sebastian, 1689; Favart, Soliman II, 1761; Martinelli, La schiava liberata, 1768; Bickerstaffe, The Captive, 1769; and Grossmann, Adelheit von Veltheim, 1780). Except for the denouement, the plot was virtually unchanged by Stephanie ( see Entführung aus dem Serail, Die ), who was interested mainly in enlarging the role Mozart’s music was to play. Bretzner’s Pasha Selim countermands his order to strangle the lovers only upon learning in the nick of time that Belmonte is his own son; Stephanie turned Selim’s clemency into an act of high magnanimity by changing Belmonte to the son of Selim’s worst enemy....


Thérèse Radic

Puppet opera in 13 brief scenes by Barry Conyngham to a libretto by Murray Copland; Groningen, Netherlands, State Theatre, 21 April 1988.

Narrated by two soloists (soprano and tenor), who also supply voices for all the puppets, the opera traces, in the manner of a serio-comic ‘conte philosophique’, the well-intentioned attempt by Australia’s first governor, Captain Phillip, to induct his mercurial aboriginal captive, Bennelong, into ‘rational’ European modes of behaviour. Accompanying Phillip to London, Bennelong finds British society rife, not with rationality, but with mystical fads and violent forms of sport – and ruled by a lunatic king. Disillusioned, Bennelong returns to Australia, only to find himself rejected as a stranger by his own people. In the moving final scene, drunk and hallucinating, he wanders through his native bush by night, to perish by a spear out of the darkness.

The vocal lines in Bennelong are mostly in parlando style; where melodic lines are used they are wide-intervalled, resembling inflected speech. The music is swift and direct, without much lyrical indulgence, and uses Conyngham’s characteristic small metrical and rhythmic ostinato figures....