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D. Kern Holoman

Opéra semi-seria in two acts by Hector Berlioz to a libretto by Léon de Wailly and (Henri-)Auguste Barbier , assisted by Alfred de Vigny, after the memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini; Paris, Opéra, 10 September 1838. Revised version, Weimar, Grossherzogliches Hoftheater, 20 March 1852; with further revision in three acts, 17 November 1852.

The opera is set in 16th-century Rome during the papacy of Clement VII. (Censorship in Paris did not allow a pope to be represented on stage so the part became that of Cardinal Salviati at the première and in all subsequent versions.) The overture, a triumph of rhythmic imagination, portends the general vivacity to follow; among the themes are allusions to the cardinal’s arioso and to the lovely ‘Ariette d’Arlequin’ of the dumb show.

Act 1 tableau i opens on Shrove Monday in the home of the papal treasurer, Giacomo Balducci (bass). He is vexed that Clement VII has commissioned a bronze statue of Perseus from the libertine genius Cellini (tenor) instead of Fieramosca (baritone; tenor in ...


Malcolm MacDonald

Tragédie en musique in three acts by Albéric Magnard to his own libretto after Jean Racine ’s tragedy; Paris, Opéra-Comique (Salle Favart), 15 December 1911.

In Act 1 Titus (baritone), heir to the Roman Empire, and Bérénice (soprano) Queen of Judaea, continue their love-affair at the latter’s villa, though Titus’s father is dying in Rome; in Act 2 Titus, now emperor, renounces their relationship; in Act 3, after farewells, Bérénice departs by sea, dedicating a lock of her hair and her lost youth to Venus.

Composed between 1905 and 1909, Magnard’s last opera is the summation of his operatic ideals. Like Racine’s tragedy, which is used more as a point of departure than a model, it concerns the (historical) relationship between Titus and Bérénice, but Magnard deliberately conflates the character of the Jewish Bérénice with the eponymous Alexandrian queen of three centuries earlier. Magnard considered his methods Wagnerian; certainly the score is saturated with leitmotifs, but the opera’s ancestry also encompasses Gluck’s tragic elevation and the Berlioz of ...


Anthony Hicks

[Berenice, regina d’Egitto] (‘Berenice, Queen of Egypt’)

Opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel to a libretto anonymously adapted from Antonio Salvi ’s Berenice, regina d’Egitto (1709, Pratolino); London, Covent Garden, 18 May 1737.

Handel composed Berenice between 18 December 1736 and 27 January 1737, during the last opera season in which his productions at Covent Garden contended with those of the rival ‘Opera of the Nobility’ at the King’s Theatre. The title role is the historical character of Cleopatra Berenice, daughter of Ptolemy Lathyrus (Ptolemy IX Soter II), who succeeded to the Egyptian throne on her father’s death in 81 bc. According to Appian (Civil Wars, i) she married her cousin Alexander (Ptolemy XI Alexander II) by order of the Roman dictator Sulla the following year and was murdered by him shortly afterwards. The roles of Berenice (soprano) and Alessandro [Alexander] (soprano castrato) were originally sung by Anna Maria Strada del Pò and the castrato Gioacchino Conti (‘Gizziello’); Selene (Berenice’s sister, contralto) was sung by Francesca Bertolli, the royal prince Demetrio by the alto castrato Domenico Annibali, the vassal prince Arsace by the contralto Maria Caterina Negri, Berenice’s captain and confidant Aristobolo by Henry Reinhold (bass) and the Roman ambassador Fabio by the tenor John Beard. (In Walsh’s print ...


Paul Corneilson

[Der Berggeist, oder Schicksal und Treue] (‘The Spirit of the Mountain, or Destiny and Truth’)

Romantische Oper in two acts by Franz Danzi (see Danzi family, §2) to a libretto by Carl von Lohbauer; Karlsruhe, Hoftheater, 19 April 1813.

Der Berggeist, referred to in some sources as Rübezahl, is probably based on the Rübezahl stories in C. A. Musäus’s collection, Volksmärchen der Deutschen...


Tilo Medek

(‘The Mine of Falun’)

Opera in eight scenes by Rudolf Wagner-Régeny to his own libretto after Hugo von Hofmannsthal ’s play; Salzburg, Festspielhaus, 16 August 1961.

Hofmannsthal’s play was based on a story, ‘Die Bergwerke zu Falun’, from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Die Serapions-Brüder. A fisherman’s son lies unconscious after being hit by the yard of a sailing ship’s mast. Elis Fröbom (baritone), a fisherman, comes home to find himself orphaned. Life holds no meaning for him now. An old man, Torbern (tenor), appears and offers him a way out: the earth under their feet opens and they go underground. There Fröbom meets the Mountain Queen (mezzo-soprano), to whom he is deeply attracted. She sends him back to the world: he is to take the place of the aging Torbern as the Mountain Queen’s lover, but must first learn the ways of the mountains for himself. The only way to her domain seems to be through the mine of Falun; the fisherman’s son mysteriously revives and transports Fröbom across the sea to the mine. Torbern takes Fröbom to the home of the mine owner Pehrson Dahlsjö (bass), where Fröbom is attracted to Dahlsjö’s daughter Anna (soprano)....


(‘The Visit of the Old Lady’)

Opera in three acts by Gottfried von Einem to a libretto by Friedrich Dürrenmatt after his tragicomedy; Vienna, Staatsoper, 23 May 1971.

Dürrenmatt’s play takes place in Güllen, a small dilapidated town somewhere in central Europe. Town dignitaries await the arrival at the station of Claire Zachanassian (mezzo-soprano), a multi-millionairess who has returned to her native town to buy revenge for the injustices of her youth, when she was deserted by her lover, Alfred Ill (high baritone), and cheated in the courts. Claire meets Ill and they reminisce. Ill tries to justify his action of having left her after she became pregnant. He bemoans his present situation and wishes to turn the clock back. At an official reception Claire promises the community a billion marks, but demands the murder of Ill in return. She summons up witnesses who claim that Ill had jilted her for a better match and had evaded the legal consequences of fatherhood by means of bribery. The citizens remain unconvinced of Ill’s guilt at this stage. Nevertheless, the prospect of receiving vast sums of money encourages them to run up huge debts. Ill realizes to his dismay that he is being trapped. He seeks consolation from the Vicar (bass-baritone) and tries to escape. The citizens, however, prevent him from leaving Güllen. Claire, meanwhile, marries her ninth groom in the cathedral. The Doctor and the Teacher (both baritones) try to persuade her to change her mind about Ill, but she rejects their entreaties. The Lord Mayor (Heldentenor) visits Ill and suggests that the community would be saved if he committed suicide. However, Ill has now overcome his fear of death and demands that judgment should be given by his fellow citizens. Eventually the citizens congregate in the local theatre and decide, in the presence of the press, to accept Claire’s money. Ill respects their decision and the judgment is carried out. Claire allows him to be put into the coffin which she has brought with her. She hands the mayor a cheque and the townspeople burst into an orgiastic dance....



William Ashbrook

[ Betly, ossia La capanna svizzera (‘Betly, or The Swiss Chalet’)]

Dramma giocoso, originally in one act, later revised in two, by Gaetano Donizetti to his own libretto after Eugène Scribe and Mélesville ’s [A.-H.-J. Duveyrier’s] libretto for Adolphe Adam’s Le châlet, ultimately derived from Goethe’s Singspiel Jery und Bätely (1780); Naples, Teatro Nuovo, 21 August 1836 (revised version, Naples, probably Teatro del Fondo, 29 September 1837).

Daniele (tenor) arrives at Betly’s chalet, delighted to have what purports to be a letter from her in which she agrees to marry him. In fact, village jokers wrote the letter, taking advantage of his simplicity; Betly (soprano) declares she knows nothing of it and asserts her independence (aria, ‘In questo semplice modesto asilo’). Her brother, Max (baritone), a corporal who has not been home for years, decides not to tell Betly who he is, and, favourably impressed with Daniele, determines to assist him in his wooing of Betly. Max’s plan involves lodging his troops in her house and provoking Daniele to a duel. This stratagem achieves the double purpose of causing Daniele to show some spirit and of persuading Betly that her independence has left her unprotected; she accepts Daniele in marriage (arias, ‘Se crudele il cor mostrai’ end ‘Ah no! non posso esprimere’)....


Richard Taruskin

[Obrucheniye v monastïre; Duen’ya (‘The Duenna’)]

‘Lyrico-comic’ opera in four acts, op.86, by Sergey Prokofiev to a libretto by the composer and Mira Alexandrovna Mendelson (Prokof’ yeva) after Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comic opera libretto The Duenna, or The Double Elopement (1775); Prague, National Opera Theatre, 5 May 1946 (Russian première, Leningrad, Kirov Theatre, 3 November 1946).

Sheridan’s The Duenna is an extravagant parody of that venerable comic-opera genre in which a ward or daughter outsmarts her parent or guardian to marry the suitor of her choice. Its farrago of disguises, subterfuges and mistaken identities ends with no fewer than three couples finally matched correctly in defiance of the wishes of Don Jerome (tenor in Prokofiev’s opera), a grandee of Seville, who had hoped to marry his headstrong daughter Louisa (soprano) off to Isaac Mendoza (bass), a rich old Portuguese Jew, who is accompanied on stage at all times by his friend Don Carlos (baritone). Mendoza ends up with Louisa’s chaperone (contralto: the Duenna); Louisa with Don Antonio (tenor), her impoverished true love; and Don Jerome’s son Ferdinand (baritone), assisted by his sister, succeeds in eloping with Donna Clara (mezzo-soprano), whose father had intended her for a convent. All of the weddings take place in a priory attached to the convent, the young lovers (and the duped Mendoza) having bribed an old toper of a friar to perform the ceremonies. When Sheridan’s play was first performed at Covent Garden, its 27 musical numbers – mainly strophic songs, with an occasional ensemble – were set by the author’s father-in-law and brother-in-law, both Thomas Linley, in collaboration (...


Thomas Bauman

[Betrug durch Aberglauben, oder Die Schatzgräber (‘Deception through Superstition, or The Treasure Seeker’)]

Komisches Singspiel in two acts by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf to a libretto by Friedrich Eberl; Vienna, Kärntnertortheater, 3 October 1786.

Baron von Lindburg (bass) has been duped by his servant Kordula (soprano) and her crony, Magister Niklas (bass), into putting his daughter Luise (soprano) into a convent as a condition imposed by supernatural spirits for finding a buried treasure. Luise’s lover, Count von Walldorf (tenor), also knows of the baron’s superstitious nature and initiates a counter-stratagem. A mock apparition in the cellar (including a band of chimney-sweeps as the Furies) convinces the baron that he should give Luise to Walldorf in exchange for a crock filled with the Count’s own ducats. Thereupon Niklas, his own scheme foiled, confesses and also exposes Kordula’s embezzling from the household accounts.

Dittersdorf’s second German comic opera for Vienna was only slightly less popular than his first, Der Apotheker und der Doktor, produced three months earlier. Ensembles loom larger here, and the chorus plays a more active role. The composer also took good advantage of opportunities for pictorial effects from the orchestra in the fire scene and windstorm in Act 1. In a send-up of the scene of the Furies in Gluck’s ...


Linda Tyler

[ Der Bettelstudent, oder Das Donnerwetter (‘The Beggar Student, or The Thunderstorm’)]

Singspiel in two acts by Peter Winter to a libretto by Paul Weidmann after Miguel de Cervantes ’s play La cueva de Salamanca; Munich, Nationaltheater, 2 February 1785.

One of Winter’s earliest operas, this work was successful throughout Germany and Austria well into the 19th century. The plot revolves around the wandering student Wilhelm Mauser (tenor) and the residents of a small mill town. The central action, which includes a mock incantation recited by Wilhelm and a mill fire sparked off by lightning, takes place during a severe thunderstorm. In the process, Wilhelm helps persuade the miller Jakob (bass) to allow his daughter, Hannchen (soprano), to marry her true love, Brandheim (tenor). The music consists of square-cut strophic songs, lyrical arias and a smattering of modest ensembles. Winter successfully combines elements from ...


Andrew Lamb

(‘The Beggar Student’)

Komische Operette in three acts by Carl Millöcker to a libretto by F. Zell and Richard Genée after Edward Bulwer-Lytton ’s The Lady of Lyons and Victorien Sardou ’s Les noces de Fernande; Vienna, Theater an der Wien, 6 December 1882.

The operetta is set in Kraków in 1704, when Poland is ruled by Friedrich-August II, Elector of Saxony. Colonel Ollendorf (bass-baritone), the Saxon governor of Kraków gaol, vows revenge on the Polish Countess Laura Nowalska (soprano), who slapped his face when he made advances to her at a ball. Laura’s mother Palmatica (mezzo-soprano) insists that her daughter will marry only a Polish officer. Ollendorf therefore has two handsome, impoverished young rebel Polish students, Symon Rymanovicz (tenor) and Jan Janicki (baritone), brought from among the political prisoners in the gaol. He offers them money for Symon to pose as a Polish prince and Jan as his secretary. During a dinner at the spring holiday celebrations, Symon and Jan are presented to Laura and her sister Bronislawa (soubrette), and mutual attraction is immediate. When Symon realizes he really loves Laura, he feels unable to maintain the pretence, but Jan persuades him to do so as cover for his own activities in support of the exiled Polish King Stanislaus Leszczynski. Symon seeks to relieve his conscience in a letter to Laura, which is intercepted by Ollendorf, and assumes from her lack of reaction that she does not mind his pretence. The wedding duly takes place, but when Ollendorf marches in and triumphantly discloses Symon’s real identity, the latter realizes that Laura had never received his letter. Chased from the house, Symon is in despair, but Jan proposes for him a dangerous role posing as the nephew of the exiled Polish king. The diversion thereby created permits the storming of the fortress of Kraków, the conquest of Saxon forces, and the reinstatement of Polish national rule. For his bravery Symon is made a Count, making him a fit husband for Laura, with Jan a no less suitable match for Bronislawa....


Richard Osborne

[Bianca e Falliero, ossia Il consiglio dei tre (‘Bianca and Falliero, or The Counsel of Three’)]

Melodramma in two acts by Gioachino Rossini to a libretto by Felice Romani after Antoine-Vincent Arnault’s play Les Vénitiens, ou Blanche et Montcassin; Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 26 December 1819.

A conspiracy against Venice has been foiled and amid the general rejoicing Bianca’s father Contareno (tenor) agrees to the healing of an old Venetian family feud by allowing Capellio (bass) Bianca’s hand in marriage. Bianca (soprano) loves the young general Falliero (mezzo-soprano), erroneously reported to have died in the recent war, and expresses her love in her cavatina ‘Della rosa il bel vermiglio’. News of her father’s plan stuns her, driving Contareno into a towering rage in which he threatens to ruin Falliero and after that succumb to a mortal despair of his own. Bianca tells Falliero of her father’s disapproval but not of the impending wedding. Act 1 ends with the wedding ceremony, Bianca’s sudden refusal to sign the marriage certificate, and Falliero’s equally sudden and angry eruption on to the scene. At the start of Act 2 Bianca reaffirms her love but Falliero has to flee at her father’s approach. The wedding ceremony is resumed but again Bianca will not sign. Her father is furious; but then news comes that Falliero has been found hiding in the grounds of the Spanish Embassy, a treasonable action in the light of the Doge’s decree against secret contacts with foreign powers. Falliero must now stand trial for his life before a Council of Three – Contareno, Capellio and Loredano – who will report to the Senate. In a highly dramatic scene, the demoralized Falliero refuses to defend himself but Bianca’s intervention makes clear the context of Falliero’s escape. Capellio is convinced by the sincerity of the two lovers and as the triumvirate’s judgment cannot now be unanimous it is passed to the Senate. In Rossini’s opera, though not in the original play, all ends happily....


Simon Maguire and Elizabeth Forbes

(‘Bianca and Fernando’)

Melodramma in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini to a libretto by Domenico Gilardoni after Carlo Roti’s play Bianca e Fernando alla tomba di Carlo IV duca di Agrigento; Naples, S Carlo, 30 May 1826.

The opera was originally written for Adelaide Tosi and Giovanni Davide, the censor changing ‘Fernando’ to ‘Gernando’ to avoid similarity to the king’s name, Ferdinando. The king then died, delaying the production, and Bellini had to recast the opera for Henriette Méric-Lalande and Giovanni Battista Rubini, with Luigi Lablache as Filippo. This version was also staged at the Teatro Carolino, Palermo, on 30 May 1829, when Filippo was sung by ‘Guglielmo Balfe’ – Michael William Balfe, the Irish composer. Meanwhile, in 1828 Bellini revised the score (and Felice Romani the libretto) for the opening of the Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa, on 7 April, when the singers originally contracted in 1826 took the title roles and Antonio Tamburini sang Filippo....


Jitka Ludvová

[Bianca und Giuseppe, oder Die Franzosen vor Nizza (‘Bianca and Giuseppe, or The French before Nice’)]

Opera in four acts by Jan Bedřich Kittl to a libretto by Richard Wagner (see Wagner family (opera) , (1)) after Heinrich König’s Die hohe Braut; Prague, Estates Theatre, 19 February 1848.

The opera is a tragic love story set in Nice in Savoy in 1793, at the time of the conquest of the town by the French Republican army. The first performance took place a few days before the beginning of the Prague Revolution of ...


Arnold Whittall

Opera in two acts, op.50, by Benjamin Britten to a libretto by E(dward) M(organ) Forster and Eric Crozier, after herman Melville’s story; in four acts, London, Covent Garden, 1 December 1951 (revised in two acts, Covent Garden, 9 January 1964; previously broadcast, BBC, 13 November 1961).

Billy Budd was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for the Festival of Britain, 1951. Britten had discussed a possible opera on Melville’s story with Crozier and Forster in late 1948 and early 1949, before the work was actually commissioned. The libretto evolved through four versions during 1949, and composition was begun in earnest during the summer of 1950. Originally planned in two acts, it was first performed in a four-act version, with Theodor Uppman in the title role, Peter Pears as Vere and Frederick Dalberg as Claggart, conducted by the composer. In 1960 Britten produced a two-act version, in which the main change was the excision of the original Act 1 finale where Captain Vere appears to general acclaim and addresses the crew. The revised version was first heard the next year under the composer’s baton and has since remained the accepted version. The opera has not achieved the extensive international success of ...


Andrew Stiller

Musical in two acts by Lejaren Hiller to a libretto after Aristophanes translated by Walter Kerr; Urbana, Illinois, University Theater, 12 March 1958.

The Athenians Pithetaerus (tenor) and Euelpides (spoken) come to the kingdom of the birds in search of an easier life. They convince Epops, king of the birds (tenor), his wife Procne (soprano) and their followers that they should fortify their airy kingdom and demand tribute from the gods in return for allowing the passage of sacrificial smoke from the mortals below. No sooner has the unbuilt city been christened (‘Cloud Cuckoo-Land’) than it begins to attract parasites: a Poet (tenor or baritone) and a Prophet, a Real Estate Man and a Lawyer (all spoken). Pithetaerus kicks them out, and the city is quickly built. The goddess Iris (spoken) inadvertently breaches the walls and is sent back to Olympus with word of the new order, while humans, flocking to the utopia, are fitted with wings so that they may participate in it. The gods, starving for lack of sacrificial food, send a delegation to negotiate. Pithetaerus, taking a hard line on the advice of Prometheus (spoken), demands the sceptre of Zeus and the hand of Iris in marriage, which the gods are forced to concede; the work ends with the combined coronation and wedding....


Bertil H. van Boer

(‘Birger Jarl and Mechtilde’)

‘Drama with music’ in three acts and a divertissement by Francesco Antonio Baldassare Uttini and Hinrich Philip Johnsen to a libretto by Gustaf Fredrik Gyllenborg after a plan by Gustavus ; Stockholm, Rikssalen, 8 July 1774.

One of the earliest nationalist efforts of Gustavus III, the story concerns the founding of the Swedish royal line by the 14th-century knight Birger Jarl. Inside Bjelbo castle, the Danish king’s widow Mathilde, disguised as Mechtilde (spoken), has sought to escape her husband’s conqueror Birger Jarl (spoken), unaware that it is he who offers her sanctuary. In Act 1, Birger Jarl tells his lieutenant Sixten Sparre (spoken) that he loves Mechtilde, but his identity must never be revealed. Mechtilde tells her lady-in-waiting Christina that she is moved by the kindness of the anonymous Swedish knight, yet she feels guilty that her emotions should be aroused so soon after her husb and’s death. Christina persuades her to leave, but their flight is interrupted by Venus (soprano), who convinces Mechtilde that her love is sanctioned by the gods....


Michael Fend

[ Blaise et Babet, ou La suite des trois fermiers (‘Blaise and Babet, or The Sequel to the Three Farmers’)]

Comédie mêlée d’ariettes in two acts by Nicolas Dezède to a libretto by Jacques Marie Boutet de Monvel; Versailles, 4 April 1783 (Paris, Comédie-Italienne, Salle Favart, 30 June 1783).

After mutual accusations of disloyalty, the marriage between Blaise (tenor) and Babet (soprano) is called off by his father, Delorme (bass-baritone), and her mother, Alix (soprano). Mathurin (baritone) reads a letter from Belval (baritone) saying that he has unexpectedly won the trial mentioned in Trois fermiers, Les (1777), and that he would like to pay back the money which the farmers gave him. He also wishes to make a financial gift for the marriage of Blaise and Babet and other couples. Belval invites the villagers to his chateau. In talking to her father, Jacques (bass-baritone), Babet withdraws her accusations against Blaise. Belval discovers that the jealousy of the two lovers was a misunderstanding. He reconciles Blaise with Babet and the wedding can be celebrated together with Mathurin’s birthday....


Julian Rushton

(‘Blaise the Cobbler’)

Opéra comique in one act by François-André Danican Philidor to a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine after Jean de La Fontaine’s story; Paris, Opéra-Comique (Théâtre de la Foire St Germain), 9 March 1759.

Blaise (tenor) and Blaisine (soprano) quarrel over his improvidence and their debts. He wants to go to Mathurin’s where his cousin Nicaise is to be married; she wants him to work. Their argument continues while two bailiff’s clerks take stock of their furniture; during a quintet the fury of the landlady, Mme Pince (soprano), unites the couple. Blaise is penitent and evolves a scheme. Hope of Blaisine’s sexual favours induces M. Pince (tenor) to relinquish the IOU for the rent, but Blaise’s entrance forces him to hide in the wardrobe where he overhears Mme Pince making immoral overtures to Blaise. The older couple, each persuaded that the other has received the money, part in confusion. The printed score ends with the next duet, but the libretto includes scenes with dancing for the wedding of Nicaise....


Tibor Tallián


Opera in three acts (seven pictures) by Sándor Szokolay to his own libretto after Federico García Lorca ’:s Bodas de sangre; Budapest, Hungarian State Opera House, 31 October 1964

After a short introduction by the female chorus, the first act develops in concise, elliptical scenes. The Bride groom (tenor) leaves for the family vineyard. His Mother (contralto), who has lost both husband and elder son as victims to village hostilities, follows his every step with foreboding. She learns from a neighbour (soprano) that the bride of her son has been engaged before to Leonardo from the family of Felix, responsible for her past tragedies. The mere mention of this family name sends her into a paroxysm of fear. The Wife (soprano) and Mother-in-law (contralto) of Leonardo sing a lullaby to his son. Leonardo (baritone) enters, but soon leaves as he is met with reproaches for having been seen ‘at the other end of the plain’ (where, we surmise, his former betrothed lives). The mother and the bridegroom come to ask for the hand of the Bride (soprano). After they leave, the Maid (soprano) tells the bride about Leonardo’s nightly visits to the premises. The bride cannot conceal her ecstasy as she catches sight of him again through the window....