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Jeremy Hayes

Drame héroïque in five acts by Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck to a libretto by Philippe Quinault after Torquato Tasso ’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata; Paris, Opéra, 23 September 1777.

Armide was the fifth of the seven operas that Gluck wrote for the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris. In it, after the successes of Iphigénie en Aulide, Orphée et Eurydice and Alceste, Gluck paid homage to, and also confronted, the operatic traditions of Lully and Rameau by setting complete (except for the prologue) the libretto Quinault had written nearly 90 years earlier for Lully’s last tragédie lyrique. The principals in the first performance were Rosalie Levasseur (Armide), Joseph Legros (Renaud), Mlle Lebourgeois (Phénice), Mlle Châteauneuf (Sidonie), Nicolas Gélin (Hidraot), Mlle Durancy (Hatred), Etienne Lainé (The Danish Knight) and Henri Larrivée (Ubalde).

Performances of Armide since the 18th century have not been frequent. Among important revivals was one in Paris in ...



Anthony Hicks

(‘Arminius’; ‘Hermann’)

Opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel to a libretto anonymously adapted from Antonio Salvi Arminio (1703, Pratolino); London, Covent Garden Theatre, 12 January 1737.

Handel composed Arminio immediately after drafting Giustino, completing the ‘filling-out’ of the score on 14 October 1736. It was the first new opera in Handel’s season of 1736–7 at Covent Garden Theatre, when for the last time his productions competed with those of the ‘Opera of the Nobility’ at the King’s Theatre. Salvi’s libretto is founded on the account by Tacitus (Annals of Imperial Rome, i.54–ii.21) of events in the Roman war against the Germans in 15 and 16 ad, and involves the historical characters of the rebel chieftain Hermann or Arminius (Prince of the Cauchi and Cherusci), the collaborating chieftain Segestes (Prince of the Catti), Segestes’ son Sigismond and the Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus. Arminius (alto castrato), betrayed by Segeste [Segestes] (bass) and imprisoned by Varo [Varus] (tenor), is freed through the courage of his wife Tusnelda [Thusnelda] (soprano) and his sister Ramise [Ramisa] (contralto), who loves Sigismondo [Sigismond] (soprano castrato), and ultimately of Sigismond himself; he and his allies defeat the Romans and peace is restored....



Roger Parker

Opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave after their earlier opera Stiffelio ; Rimini, Teatro Nuovo, 16 August 1857.

The first performance of Stiffelio, at Trieste in November 1850, had encountered severe problems with local religious censorship, particular objection being made to the final scene, which had to be changed radically and – Verdi thought – damagingly. The few subsequent revivals also tended to run into trouble, and in 1854 Verdi decided to collaborate with Piave on rescuing the opera by setting it to a different, less sensitive plot. In 1856 they started work, changing the tale of a 19th-century Protestant pastor into that of a 13th-century Saxon knight returned from the Crusades, Verdi taking the opportunity to make a number of further modifications. The brilliant young conductor Angelo Mariani directed the première at Rimini, whose cast included Emilio Pancani (Aroldo), Marcellina Lotti (Mina) and Gaetano Ferri (Egberto). The revised opera was a huge success, but revivals fared less well and ...



Michael F. Robinson

Dramma per musica in three acts by Domenico Natale Sarro to a libretto by Antonio Salvi after Thomas Corneille ’s tragedy Le comte d’Essex; Naples, Teatro S Bartolomeo, 10 December 1718.

Salvi’s text (originally set by Giuseppe Orlandini as Amore e Maestà in 1715) is one of the few early 18th-century Italian librettos which end with the death of the hero or heroine. During the course of the opera the hero Arsace (soprano castrato) is arrested for having led an uprising against his queen, Statira (soprano). He contributes to his downfall by refusing to answer Statira, who loves him and would save him if she could, about the reason for his rebellion. The real reason, as he explains to his friend Megabise (soprano), is that he is secretly in love with the princess Rosmiri (soprano) and wants to prevent her enforced marriage to Mitrane (alto castrato). A false report linking Arsace with Dario, pretender to the throne, is spread by his enemy Artabano (tenor) and contributes to Statira’s decision to sign the death warrant. She hears the truth too late to stay execution, and is stricken with grief at the news of his death....



Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson

[Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus]

Opera in three acts by Thomas Claytonto a libretto by Tommaso Stanzani, translated by Peter Anthony Motteux; London, Drury Lane, 16 January 1705.

The opera opens with the hero Ormondo (countertenor) foiling an assassination attempt on Queen Arsinoe (soprano) instigated by Dorisbe (soprano), a princess who holds the Queen responsible for her father’s death. Arsinoe and Ormondo fall in love, but Dorisbe is in love with Ormondo and is herself loved by Feraspe (bass), the captain of the Queen’s Guard. After much misunderstanding and jealousy, a duel between Ormondo and Feraspe, a second murderous attack on Arsinoe, a prison scene with Ormondo in chains in which Arsinoe realizes that he is of royal birth and a suicide attempt by Dorisbe the opera ends with Arsinoe about to marry Ormondo and the forgiven Dorisbe united with Feraspe. Light relief is provided by Ormondo’s servant Delbo (bass) and Dorisbe’s old nurse (contralto)....


Sven Hansell


Opera seria in three acts by Johann Adolf Hasse to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio ( see Artaserse above); Venice, Teatro S Giovanni Grisostomo, February, 1730, with text much changed by Lalli, (Benedetto) Domenico (opera) or Giovanni Boldini (revised version, Dresden, Court Theatre, 9 September 1740; recomposed version, Naples, Teatro S Carlo, 20 January 1760 and summer 1762 with, for the most part, Metastasio’s original text).

Hasse’s first and third settings of this libretto illustrate his style when he was about to take up his duties as Kapellmeister in Dresden (1731) and again when he was about to give them up (1763). His style underwent significant change during his association with Dresden, so that little in the work of 1760 and 1762 resembles the scores of 1730 and 1740. The rhythmic variety and exciting exploitation of vocal range typical of his later arias, guaranteed the spontaneity that pleased audiences and gratified singers more and more with each decade. On the basis of musical style, it would seem that Hasse viewed Arbaces, his father and his sister as commoners (if this were an accepted interpretation of the libretto, that would help explain its exceptional popularity in the later 18th century)....


Don Neville


Libretto by Pietro Metastasio , first set by Leonardo Vinci (1730, Rome).

Act 1 King Serse [Xerxes] of Persia has banished Arbace [Arbaces], a friend of his son, Prince Artaxerxes, because he is the beloved of his daughter, Princess Mandane. Arbaces’ father, Artabano [Artabanus], assassinates Xerxes and, finding Arbaces secretly returned to visit Mandane, exchanges swords with him so that Arbaces may hide the murder weapon. Artabanus then convinces Artaxerxes that his brother Prince Darius is the assassin and, acting quickly upon Artaxerxes’ first reactions, immediately has Darius executed. Arbaces is subsequently accused and arrested, and although Artabanus urges punishment, Artaxerxes is reluctant to condemn his friend and the brother of Semira, the woman he loves.

Act 2 Artabanus makes possible his son’s escape, but Arbaces refuses. Semira begs Artaxerxes to pardon Arbaces while Mandane, despite her love, demands vengeance. Perplexed, Artaxerxes passes the responsibility of judgment to Artabanus who, to everyone’s consternation, condemns his son to death. Secretly, however, he plans to oust Artaxerxes and place Arbaces on the throne....


Dale E. Monson


Opera seria in three acts by baldassare Baldassare Galuppi to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio ( see Artaserse above); Vienna, Burgtheater, 27 January 1749.

This was Galuppi’s first setting of Metastasio’s most popular text; it was revised for Padua in 1751. The text is heavily cut throughout, with many lines of new recitative added to bridge awkward transitions. The most extensive variation is the insertion of a quartet for the principals, Arbace [Arbaces] (soprano), Artaxerxes (soprano), Artabano [Artabanus] (tenor) and Mandane (alto, sung by Vittoria Tesi), in Act 1 scene xi and the deletion of the rest of the act following (five arias and four scenes, including Arbaces’s pleas for clemency and claims of innocence). The work’s popularity rode on the tails of ...


Kurt Markstrom


Dramma per musica in three acts by leonardo Leonardo Vinci to a libretto by pietro Pietro Metastasio ( see Artaserse above); Rome, Teatro delle Dame, 4 February 1730.

Artaserse and its companion piece Alessandro nell’Indie were the last of a series of successful collaborations between Vinci and Metastasio before the poet departed for Vienna. They were first performed during the same season in which Porpora presented two operas at the neighbouring Teatro Capranica. According to Burney, Vinci set both operas ‘for half price, to gratify his enmity to Porpora’. Marpurg describes how each composer had his own theatre, group of singers and partisan followers, and even his own coffee-house where these followers gathered to discuss the merits of the two masters. The rivalry came to a climax when the Vinci party tried to sabotage the première of Porpora’s second opera, Siface – an unnecessary effort since both Vinci operas were successful. ...


John A. Parkinson

Opera in three acts by Thomas Augustine Arne probably to his own libretto after Pietro Metastasio ’s Artaserse; London, Covent Garden, 2 February 1762.

Artaxerxes was Arne’s first and only attempt at a full-length English opera on the Italian model. For his libretto he seems to have made an English version of Metastasio’s well-known text himself, already set numerous times by such composers as Hasse and J. C. Bach. The opera was chiefly intended as a display piece for his pupil Charlotte Brent, whose part of Mandane contains coloratura writing of awesome difficulty. Semira, the other female role, also demands an accomplished singer. John Beard first sang the part of the villain Artabanes, whose complex character and mixture of motives is reflected in his music. Artaxerxes and Arbaces, two castrato roles, were sung by the Italians Peretti and Tenducci respectively, which brought some criticism from those opposed to ‘the vile race of eunuchs’. Tenducci’s music requires expressiveness as well as a measure of virtuosity, and is more demanding than that given to Peretti. The part of the treacherous Rimenes, sung by George Mattocks, was of a suitably unsubtle nature....


Gerard Béhague


Opera (‘lyric episode’) in one act by Alberto Nepomuceno to a libretto by Coelho Neto; Rio de Janeiro, Teatro São Pedro de Alcântara, 14 October 1898.

Helio (tenor), a sculptor from Athens, falls in love with a statue of the goddess Artemis which he has just completed. He kills his own daughter, Delia, tearing her heart out with the aim of giving life to the statue. Surprised by his wife, Hestia (soprano), he becomes confused and throws the statue to the ground, destroying it. He realizes then that his blind passion has caused the useless sacrifice of his daughter. While the subject appeared rather insignificant and artificial at the time, the opera was considered by Luiz Heitor Corrêa de Azevedo a ‘musical jewel’....


John S. Powell

(‘The Flourishing Arts’)

Opéra in five scenes by Marc-Antoine Charpentier ; Paris, Hôtel de Guise, 1685–6.

La Musique [Music] (soprano), La Peinture [Painting] (haute-contre), La Poésie [Poetry] (soprano) and L’Architecture [Architecture] (mezzo-soprano) flourish together under the reign of La Paix [Peace] (soprano) and the benign influence of Louis XIV. Each allegorical character begins with a statement of his attributes and concludes by paying homage to the king, patron of the arts and founder of the royal academies. Confronting the evils personified by La Discorde [Discord] (bass) and the furies, Peace finally triumphs and the arts unite to restore universal harmony through choral song and dance. The dramatic framework and symmetrical design of ...



Hugh Macdonald

Opéra in five acts and seven tableaux by Camille Saint-Saëns to a libretto by Louis Gallet after Paul Meurice’s play Benvenuto Cellini; Paris, Opéra, 21 March 1890.

Composed in 1887–8, Ascanio makes a grand opera of a play of intrigue set in Paris in 1539. Meurice, whom Saint-Saëns knew well, had collaborated with Alexandre Dumas père on his novel Benvenuto Cellini, published in 1843, and had fashioned a successful play from the story in 1852. To avoid confusion with Berlioz’s opera the title was changed (even though Cellini is still the principal character in the drama) and a scene in the play where Cellini runs out of metal when casting a statue was not included. The choice of an episode from Cellini’s life that took place in France at the court of François I satisfied Saint-Saëns’ longstanding desire to base his operas on French history, and by casting the third act as a ...


Julian Rushton

Festa teatrale in two acts, K111, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , to a libretto by Giuseppe Parini (1729–99); Milan, Regio Ducal Teatro, 17 October 1771.

Mozart’s second Milan opera, following Mitridate (1770), is in the courtly genre beloved of the Habsburgs. It was included in the celebrations for the wedding of Archduke Ferdinand to Maria Ricciarda Berenice d’Este, with Hasse’s Il Ruggiero which (according to Leopold Mozart) it put in the shade, and it was repeated three or four times.

Ascanio (soprano castrato; originally sung by Mozart’s former singing instructor, Giovanni Manzuoli) is the son of Aeneas and grandson of Venere [Venus] (soprano, representing Maria Theresa). He is destined to marry Silvia (soprano), a descendant of Hercules (alluding to Duke Ercole d’Este). In an allegory of arranged marriage, Venus contrives to have Silvia fall in love with a dream-image of Ascanio, while he is allowed to see her but may not identify himself. This slender plot develops amid pastoral scenes with shepherds, votaries of Venus led by Fauno (soprano castrato) and the priest Aceste (tenor). During an entr’acte (a ballet, for which only the bass parts have survived), the city of Alba Longa miraculously springs up; in Act 2 a little dramatic tension is generated by Silvia’s uncertainty about whether her beloved really is Ascanio. Several scenes are structured by repeated choruses, there is one trio. The arias, particularly Fauno’s second and those for Ascanio and Silvia, are exceptionally brilliant. Mozart’s growing maturity is revealed in the solo scene for Silvia (aria, ‘Infelici affetti miei’) and in the skilful blend of counterpoint and homophony in what is perhaps the work’s most distinctive feature, its choral writing....


William Y. Elias

Opera in two acts (16 scenes) by Josef Tal to a libretto (in Hebrew) by Israel Eliraz; Hamburg, Städtische Oper, 9 November 1971 (in German).

Inspired by an ancient Talmudic legend, and an allegory about totalitarianism, the opera is set in an idyllic, peaceful country. The King (lyric baritone) hates the Queen (mezzo-soprano), whom he married only to prevent war with her father, and is in love with the Landlady (soprano). In Act 1, the devil Ashmedai (tenor) appears one night to the King and suggests that if he, Ashmedai, could rule as king for a year, he could turn the peace-loving citizens into bloodthirsty savages while the King could live happily with the Landlady. The King has such faith in his people that he agrees to the bet, but as soon as Ashmedai assumes the physical traits of the King and ascends the throne the citizens turn into intolerant, aggressive killers. A terrible war breaks out, causing total destruction. In Act 2, Ashmedai has won his bet, but the real King refuses to reclaim the throne because his faith in his people has been shattered. Ashmedai changes into a rooster and is devoured, unknowingly, by the Queen and her entourage. The King returns to his throne but refuses to continue the war, despite the advice of his Son (tenor), the commander of the army, and is lynched by the furious masses. Ashmedai appears to the people but they refuse to believe the truth. In an apocalyptic scene the physical world disintegrates, leaving only the King’s naked body with his anguished, faithful Daughter (soprano) leaning over him....


Richard Taruskin

[Askol’dova mogila]

Romantic opera in four acts by Alexey Nikolayevich Verstovsky to a libretto by Mikhail Nikolayevich Zagoskin after his novel (1833); Moscow, Bol’shoy Theatre, 16/28 September 1835.

Though largely forgotten today, Askold’s Grave was the most popular Russian opera of the 19th century. It was first published in vocal score in 1836 and there have been many subsequent editions. The action takes place in 10th-century Kiev, during the reign of Svyatoslav Igorevich. Nadezhda (soprano), the daughter of Alexey (bass), a Christian fisherman, is betrothed to Vseslav (tenor), the pagan ruler’s orphan ward. A mysterious figure called Neizvestnïy (‘The Unknown’; bass) appears to Vseslav, informs him of his descent from the glorious line of Prince Askold, and tries unsuccessfully to enlist Vseslav’s aid in overthrowing the dissolute Svyatoslav. In Act 2 the Unknown has Nadezhda abducted by one of Svyatoslav’s minions; Vseslav kills the latter and is forced to become an outlaw. In Act 3 Nadezhda, immured in Svyatoslav’s palace, is assisted by Toropka Golovan (tenor), a kindly minstrel, who distracts Svyatoslav’s retinue with a ballad while Vseslav steals in and rescues his bride. In the final act Svyatoslav’s steward Vïshata (bass) learns the lovers’ whereabouts with the aid of the witch Vakhrameyevna (contralto). Surrounded, Vseslav and Nadezhda are about to leap into the Dnepr to their deaths when Svyatoslav’s groom, Stemid (tenor), announces their pardon. The Unknown, foiled in his attempt to topple the Kievan Prince, is swallowed up by the river and perishes. The assembled populace praise God....


Virginia Saya

Opera in two acts by Dominick Argento to his own libretto based on Henry James ’s novella of the same title; Dallas, Music Hall at Fair Park, 19 November 1988.

Argento moved the setting of Henry James’s story of conflict between artistic and personal values from Venice to the shores of Lake Como. The fictional 19th-century poet, Jeffrey Aspern, became a composer modelled loosely after Vincenzo Bellini, and the papers sought by a scholar after Aspern’s death were changed from love letters into an opera manuscript suppressed by Aspern’s mistress.

The opera, set in 1895, includes a series of flashbacks to 1835 which come to a climax when Aspern (tenor) drowns while attempting to swim across Lake Como to the home of the woman he loves (Sonia, mezzo-soprano), instead of remaining with his mistress, the diva Juliana Bordereau (soprano). These events illuminate the action of 60 years later when the elderly Juliana finds her reclusive life invaded by a Lodger (baritone) who is secretly in search of Aspern’s supposedly destroyed opera ...



Jürgen Maehder

Leggenda in four acts by Baron Alberto Franchetti to a libretto by Ferdinando Fontana; Reggio Emilia, Teatro Municipale, 11 February 1888.

In his libretto, which combines features from Mefistofele and Lohengrin, Fontana tried to depict the combat between the spirit of evil (Asrael) and the incarnation of Christian love (Nefta, in the guise of Suor Clotilde). Act 1, divided between Hell and Heaven, seems like a real rehash of the prologue of Mefistofele; even Bioto’s experiments with poetic metres are imitated, on a lower level. Nefta (soprano), in love with the sinful spirit Asrael (tenor), prays to be sent to Earth to rescue his soul. In Acts 2 and 3, set in Brabant by the river Escaut, the confrontation is seen in a vaguely medieval ambience. Act 4 is set in a convent where Nefta eventually conquers a demons’ chorus to redeem Asrael’s soul; the convent is transformed into Heaven and angels’ choruses are heard....


John C.G. Waterhouse

(‘Murder in the Cathedral’)

Opera in two acts and an intermezzo by Ildebrando Pizzetti to his own libretto, shortened and adapted from Alberto Castelli’s translation of T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral; Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 1 March 1958.

The partial recovery of Pizzetti’s operatic inspiration in the 1950s, after its long sag during the previous two decades and more, was undoubtedly helped by happy choices of subjects and texts. Nowhere is this more the case than in Assassinio nella cattedrale (composed in 1956–7), for Eliot’s great play contained several elements that were likely to bring out the best in him: plentiful choruses; a central character tormented by moral dilemmas; ethical discourses controlled by a literary talent greater than the composer’s own; a pervading elevated atmosphere in a religious context.

Thomas Becket (bass-baritone), Archbishop of Canterbury, has just returned from a long exile in France that resulted from deep disagreements with King Henry II. He is welcomed by Canterbury women and by priests, who nevertheless fear for his future and for their own. Four tempters (tenor and three baritones) try to tempt him in ways relating both to his past life and to his present situation: Thomas’s struggle to resist them culminates in a turbulently impressive monologue at the end of Act 1. Before Act 2 there is an ‘intermezzo’, in which Thomas’s Christmas sermon is represented (controversially) by two sung fragments separated by a purely orchestral interlude. Likewise questionable is the depiction of the four knights (tenor, two baritones and bass), who in due course murder Thomas for his refusal to submit to the king’s will. Their musical characterization seems tame and over-simple, and their final self-justifying address to the audience is reduced, in Pizzetti’s version, to a few token phrases. The orchestration, too, may seem disappointing, even at times ineffective, compared with that of the composer’s masterpiece ...


William Ashbrook

(‘The Siege of Calais’)

Melodramma lirico in three acts by Gaetano Donizetti to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano after Luigi Marchionni’s L’assedio di Calais, with details from Luigi Henry’s 1827 ballet L’assedio di Calais, both ultimately derived from Pierre Du Belloy’s Le siège de Calais; Naples, Teatro S Carlo, 19 November 1836.

The action, set in 1347, involves the latter stages of Edward III’s siege of Calais. On the king’s offer to raise the siege if seven leading citizens will sacrifice their lives, six burghers come forward. When they appear in the English camp, led by the mayor (baritone) and his son (mezzo-soprano), the resolute bravery of the Frenchmen moves the English queen (soprano) to plead for their lives; Edward (bass) accedes.

In the 19th century L’assedio di Calais had no more than a single run of performances at the S Carlo between 1836 and 1840. An enterprising recording by Opera Rara in 1989...