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Article

(‘The Impresario from the Canary Islands’)

Libretto by Pietro Metastasio, first set by Domenico Sarro (1724, Naples). Versions of the libretto also appear under the titles Dorina e Nibbio, L’impresario, L’impresario dell’isole Canarie and L’impresario e la cantante.

Part 1 Dorina, a prima donna, is impatient with her attendants because she cannot find a ‘modern’ piece, with embellishments on every word, to sing at an embassy function. Nibbio, the impresario from the Canary Islands, calls on Dorina, reassures her that texts are unimportant in opera, and coaxes her to sing for him. Enraptured, he presents her with a cantata of his own, the airing of which occupies the remainder of the interview until Dorina contrives an escape.

Part 2 Dorina is upbraiding the wardrobe assistants when she is again visited by Nibbio to whom she explains the miseries of pleasing an audience; she is also concerned that, in having to show extreme emotion on stage, she may damage her voice. She obliges Nibbio with an excerpt from ...

Article

Don Neville

(‘Hypermnestra’)

Libretto by Pietro Metastasio, first set by Johann Adolf Hasse (1744, Vienna).

Act 1 Danao [Danaus], King of Argos, is informed by an oracle that he will lose his life at the hands of a son of Aegyptus. He therefore commands his daughter, Hypermnestra, betrothed to Linceo [Lynceus], a son of Aegyptus, to murder him on their wedding night; but, unable to commit such a crime, Hypermnestra decides to reject Lynceus. Told of this action by Adrasto [Adrastus], his confidant, Danaus condemns his daughter, who still refuses Lynceus when next she meets him.

Act 2 Danaus instructs Adrastus to tell Elpinice, his niece, that she will inherit the throne if she convinces Hypermnestra to change her mind. Unsure of what to do, Elpinice seeks counsel. Meanwhile, Hypermnestra pleads in vain with her father to spare Lynceus. She learns from Lynceus himself that he plans suicide; she begs him to refrain, but refuses to admit that she still loves him....

Article

Julie E. Cumming

Libretto subject used in the 18th century. Its source is the Iphigeneia in Aulis of Euripides , but Racine’s Iphigénie (1674) is of equal importance. Librettos on the subject were written in French (Iphigénie en Aulide), German (Iphigenie in Aulis) and Italian (Ifigenia in Aulide).

In Euripides’ account, the Greek fleet is becalmed at Aulis where it has assembled to sail for Troy. An oracle demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, in order that the winds may blow. Agamemnon vacillates; Clytemnestra protests; Achilles defends Iphigenia; Iphigenia goes willingly to the altar. At the last minute Diana carries her off, leaving a deer in her place. This version permits a sequel, Iphigenia in Tauris . According to Racine there is a second Iphigenia, known as Erifile [Eriphyle]. At the last moment the high priest realizes that Eriphyle is the one who must die; she kills herself, and Iphigenia and Achilles marry. The third common variant is a compromise, in which, without Eriphyle, Iphigenia is saved by divine intervention and marries Achilles....

Article

Julie E. Cumming

Libretto subject popular in the 18th century. Its source is the Iphigenia in Tauris of Euripides, although Guimond de la Touche’s spoken drama Iphigénie en Tauride (1757) was also influential. Librettos on the subject were written in Italian (Ifigenia in Tauride), French (Iphigénie en Tauride) and German (Iphigenie in Tauris); they were sometimes named after the two principal male characters (Oreste; Oreste e Pilade; Pilade e Oreste) or their friendship (La forza dell’amicizia).

Iphigenia is a priestess at the temple of Diana in the barbarian kingdom of Tauris, having been transported there after her supposed sacrifice in Aulis. Her brother Orestes arrives in Tauris with his faithful friend Pylades. He is being pursued by the Furies for having killed his mother, Clytemnestra, and must do penance by finding the statue of Diana in Tauris and returning it to Greece. They are captured and the tyrant, Thoas, demands that they be sacrificed. Iphigenia does not recognize them, but feels a strange affinity with Orestes; there is a recognition scene, an attempt to escape, and a final ...

Article

Don Neville

(‘Hypsipyle’)

Libretto by Pietro Metastasio, first set by Francesco Conti (1732, Vienna).

Act 1 Delayed in Thrace, the men of Lemnos have made concubines of the young Thracian women. In revenge, the women of Lemnos vow to murder their menfolk upon their return. Toante [Thoas], King of Lemnos, has a particular enemy in the widowed princess, Eurinome [Eurynome], whose son, Learco [Learchus], he banished for the harassment of his daughter, Hypsipyle. When Hypsipyle vows to murder her father to satisfy Eurynome, she secretly plans to warn him not to land, but is too late. Thoas is surprised at his daughter’s cool public greeting, but she explains all privately when she bids him hide in the sacred grove of the goddess Diana.

Act 2 Unknown to all, Learchus has returned with a band of pirates and, unrecognized, tells Thoas to flee the grove for his daughter’s sake. Masquerading as Thoas, Learchus plans to seize Hypsipyle and leave Lemnos. Meanwhile, Hypsipyle sacrifices another Lemnian in place of her father, passing the body off as that of Thoas. So convincing is her deception that Giasone [Jason], betrothed to Hypsipyle and just returned to Lemnos, renounces her when he learns of her patricidal act from Eurynome....

Article

Paul Corneilson

Libretto subject much used in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its principal sources are the historical accounts of the Roman leader Julius Caesar as recorded in Plutarch’s Lives. Opera librettos have tended to focus either on Caesar’s visit to Egypt, where he falls in love with Cleopatra (the subject of Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra), or on his assassination at the hands of his fellow Romans (as in William Shakespeare ’s tragedy Julius Caesar). They may be found under titles including Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Cesare in Alessandra, Cesare e Cleopatra, Cesare in Egitto, La morte di Cesare and Il trionfo di Cesare.

Possibly the first libretto featuring an episode from the life of Caesar was G. F. Busenello’s La prosperità in felice di Giulio Cesare dittatore (libretto published in 1656; possibly intended for the Teatro SS Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, with music attributed to Cavalli, but possibly not composed). Probably the earliest setting on the Caesar and Cleopatra theme is Cesti’s ...

Article

Brian Trowell

The verbal text of an opera. For discussion of the printed wordbook, see Libretto.

The term ‘libretto’ has been extended from its literal meaning of ‘small book’ to denote the literary content of an opera, not merely its separate physical existence. The sung text will also appear in the musical score, though the visual layout of verse forms and poetic lineation will there vanish, and scene descriptions and stage directions will often be omitted or shortened. Score and wordbook together form a blueprint for theatrical performance, where the words will (one hopes) be heard, as song, as recitative, or in some forms of opera as speech, and the other arts prescribed or implicit in the libretto will be realized as acting, movement in space, dance, decor (including machines), lighting and costume. It is evident that ‘literary content’ is an insufficient description, for the libretto, unlike the play text, is only part of the blueprint. With these cautions in mind the libretto, like the play text, may be discussed as literature....

Article

Marita P. McClymonds

(‘Lucius Verus’)

Libretto by Apostolo Zeno, first set by C. F. Pollarolo (1700, Venice) and much re-used under a variety of titles.

The plot, taken from Roman history, deals with the Emperor Lucius Verus in Ephesus. He is promised to Lucilla, daughter of his co-emperor Marcus Aurelius, but is in love with his captive, Berenice, Queen of Armenia. Berenice is faithful to her betrothed, Vologeso [Vologeses], King of the Parthians, who was taken in battle. When Vologeses appears in the gladiatorial arena, she joins him. A lion threatens her, and Verus throws a sword to Vologeses, who kills it; Lucilla realizes that Verus loves Berenice. In Act 2, urged on by his friend Aniceto [Anicetus], Verus tries to separate the pair; Berenice would rather have Vologeses dead than become Verus’s wife. Verus orders Vologeses’ death, and Berenice resolves to die with him. Infuriated, Lucilla returns to Rome with her counsellor Claudio [Claudius] and enlists the Roman army against Verus. Act 3 begins in the Roman camp with military games in the form of a ballet. Meanwhile, Verus’s servant Niso [Nisus] brings Berenice a basin covered with a black cloth. She believes it contains Vologeses’ head, but as she lifts the cover the gloomy scene changes to a brilliant throne room: the basin contains a crown and sceptre. When Berenice still refuses Verus’s advances, Verus orders Vologeses’ death. Nisus reports that the people have turned against Verus, and that Lucilla is leading the Roman army in an attack; Verus stops the execution and is reconciled with Lucilla. Meanwhile Berenice, believing Vologeses dead, goes mad and is about to kill herself when Vologeses enters. He has uncovered a plot devised by Anicetus to gain Lucilla for himself. Verus apologizes and wishes the faithful couple well. The characters depart in separate ships during an antiphonal ...

Article

Dale E. Monson

Libretto subject popular in the 18th century.

Operas on the subject have been entitled Lucio Papirio and also Quinto Fabio. Livy, not the most reliable of the Roman historians, gives a unique account (vi.29–35) of a conflict between Lucius Papirius Cursor, military dictator during the second Samnite war, and Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus, his Master of Horse (c 325 bc). Papirius left the field of battle briefly to retake the auguries in Rome, and though he left clear orders with Quintus Fabius neither to leave his post nor to engage the enemy, the youthful leader took advantage of the enemy’s laxity and attacked, winning a great victory. Papirius, learning of those events, declared his will breached and military discipline at danger; he condemned Fabius to death. Fleeing first to the Roman Senate with his father (and former Roman dictator) Marcus Fabius, then pleading his case to the Roman people, Quintus Fabius sought to escape the dictator’s wrath. In this he was supported by the army (the soldiers unsympathetic towards the merciless dictator) and the voice of the populace, but only when both father and son showed humility and pleaded for mercy did Papirius at last relent....

Article

Paul Cauthen

Libretto subject used chiefly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its source is Greek history, in particular Euripides’ lost tragedy Cresphontes.

The story is set in the kingdom of Messenia in the Greek Peloponnese, ruled by Cresphontes, a descendant of Hercules, and his queen, Merope, princess of Messenian nobles Cresphontes is deposed by Polyphontes and executed along with two of his three sons. Merope sends the youngest son, Aepytus, into hiding in Arcadia. When he reaches manhood he returns to avenge his father’s murder; arriving in disguise, he announces that he has killed the long-missing third son of Cresphontes. Merope, whom Polyphontes has forced to become his wife, learns that Aepytus is no longer in Arcadia and orders the stranger put to death. Aepytus’s true identity is revealed before the execution; mother and son are reunited. Aepytus kills Polyphontes and assumes his rightful place on the throne.

There are two major variants of the story. In its earliest version, by Zeno also adds a love interest for Epitide [Aepytus] in the Arcadian princess Argia, taken hostage by Polyphontes. Polyphontes forces Anassandro [Anasander], the executioner of Cresofonte [Cresphontes] and his sons, to accuse Merope in public of having commissioned the act. Merope learns Aepytus’s true identity only near the end of the opera, having believed him executed at her request. Later ...