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Article

Astarto  

Lowell Lindgren

Dramma per musica in three acts by Giovanni Bononcini to a libretto by Paolo Antonio Rolli after Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Pariati ’s libretto of the same title (1708); Rome, Teatro Capranica, January 1715 (revised, London, King’s Theatre, 19 November 1720).

Elisa (soprano castrato), Queen of Tyre, loves her admiral Clearco (alto castrato) and is ready to marry him. Their union is opposed by Fenicio (alto castrato), supposed father of Clearco, Agenore (tenor), who loves Elisa, and Sidonia (soprano castrato), who loves Clearco rather than Nino (soprano castrato). Only Fenicio knows that Clearco is really Astarto, the son of the king who was slain when Elisa’s father usurped the throne. Clearco learns his true identity near the end of Act 2, and in the end reveals his identity to all and is united with Elisa.

The Roman libretto includes intermezzos at the end of the first two acts, but they are not in the only extant score (in ...

Article

Lowell Lindgren

(‘Astyanax’)

Drama in three acts by Giovanni Bononcini to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym after Jean Racine’s play Andromaque (1667) by way of Antonio Salvi’s libretto (1701, Pratolino); London, King’s Theatre, 6 May 1727.

The child Astyanax (silent role) and his mother Andromaca [Andromache] (soprano), widow of Hector, are at the court of Pirro [Pyrrhus] (mezzo-soprano), son of Achilles. Pyrrhus loves Andromache, thus slighting and arousing the vengeful ire of Ermione [Hermione] (soprano), whom he is contracted to marry. Hermione is loved by Oreste [Orestes] (contralto), son of Agamemnon, who asks for the sacrifice of Astyanax so that he will not grow up to wreak vengeance upon Greece. Pyrrhus accedes to the request, halts the slaughter when Andromache appeals to him, then is himself wounded by Orestes, who had been spurred on by Hermione. Orestes is captured, but his friend Pilade [Pylades] (contralto) abducts Astyanax with the intention of killing him. This is prevented when Pyrrhus’s captain, Creonte (bass), exchanges Orestes for Astyanax....

Article

Gordana Lazarevich

(‘Female Shrewdness’)

Commedia per musica in two acts by Domenico Cimarosa to a libretto by Giuseppe Palomba ; Naples, Teatro dei Fiorentini, 26 August 1794.

The orphan Bellina (soprano) is the ward of Don Romualdo (bass), an ignorant elderly man who aspires to marry her. He is upset to discover that, according to her father’s will, she will receive a large dowry if she marries Don Gianpaolo Lasagna (bass), an old family friend. When the crude and cowardly Lasagna, who sings exclusively in Neapolitan dialect, comes to claim his bride he is rejected and ridiculed by Bellina. The object of her affections is Filandro (tenor), and for his sake she also rejects Romualdo’s amorous advances. Two other women live in Romualdo’s household: the governess Leonora (soprano), who is anxious to marry Romualdo and is jealous of his attentions toward Bellina; and Bellina’s friend Ersilia (soprano), who is happy with her unmarried status.

Through Leonora’s intrigues, Romualdo, Lasagna and Filandro realize that they are all rivals for Bellina’s hand. Bellina and Filandro attempt to pawn Leonora and Ersilia off on to Lasagna in order to extricate Bellina from her marital obligation to him, and later the couple disguise themselves as Hussars, speaking broken German. They finally succeed in tricking Lasagna and Romualdo into blessing their marriage. After the men’s initial anger at having been duped, the story concludes with a happy ending as Romualdo unites with Leonora and Lasagna with Ersilia....

Article

Michael Kennedy

Musical interlude in one act by Gustav Holst to a libretto based on the tavern scenes from William Shakespeare ’s King Henry IV Parts I and II (with two of Shakespeare’s sonnets and some traditional songs); Manchester, Opera House, 3 April 1925.

Holst composed At the Boar’s Head in 1924 at Thaxted, Essex, while convalescing from the effects of a fall from the rostrum while conducting. He noticed, after reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV, that the words fitted some of the tunes in Playford’s English Dancing Master (1651). ‘Immediately’, Imogen Holst relates in her biography, ‘he succumbed to the fascinating task of seeing how many other tunes he could find that would “fit” the rest of the words. And then he settled down to enjoy himself’.

Something like 40 traditional tunes, taken mainly from collections by Chappell and Cecil Sharp, were pressed into service. Holst himself supplied only three original tunes. The results might have been thought to sound artificial and contrived, but Holst’s astonishing feat was to compose a score that flows easily and smoothly, one tune succeeding another without any suggestion of being forced into a mould. Yet when the work was new, it was strongly criticized for being a mere exercise in ingenuity and for slowing down the action of Shakespeare’s comedy. It took almost 50 years for the score to be recognized as an exhilarating and brilliant creation. Its many felicities were fully revealed in its first recording (...

Article

Anthony Hicks

Opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel to a libretto anonymously adapted from Belisario Valeriano’s La caccia in Etolia (1715, Ferrara); London, Covent Garden Theatre, 12 May 1736.

Handel completed the score of Atalanta on 22 April and performed it as part of a short spring opera season at Covent Garden to celebrate the marriage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, to Augusta, Princess of Saxe-Gotha. (Handel had declined to offer a full season in deference to the dominance of the productions of the ‘Opera of the Nobility’ at the King’s Theatre.) The eight performances were preceded by two of Ariodante. Frederick, the leading supporter of the Nobility Opera, ostentatiously refused to attend the first night, but Handel was as usual supported by the king and the royal princesses. The young soprano castrato Gioachino Conti (known as Egizziello) and Handel’s regular soprano Anna Strada del Po sang the roles of Meleagro [Meleager], King of Etolia, and Atalanta, Princess of Arcadia. Maria Negri (contralto) sang the shepherdess Irene, John Beard (tenor) the shepherd Aminta [Amyntas], and the two basses Gustavus Waltz and Henry Reinhold sang the old shepherd Nicandro [Nicander] and the god Mercurio [Mercury] respectively. A significant last-minute revision (perhaps made during the first run) was the inclusion of a duet in Act 3 in place of Meleager’s brilliant aria ‘Tu scolcasti’ in scene vi; the second of the two issues of the wordbook shows that the aria was not cut (as suggested in Chrysander’s edition) but was given a revised text and moved to close scene iii. Handel revived the opera for two performances on ...

Article

Athalie  

Raymond A. Barr

(‘Athaliah’)

Opera in five acts by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz to his own libretto (with C. F. Cramer) after Jean Racine ; Rheinsberg, French Theatre of Prince Heinrich, 1785.

Athaliah has usurped the throne after the death of her son Ahaziah and has massacred all the members of the royal house except her grandson Joash, who was rescued by an aunt. The opera opens after Athaliah has been ruling for seven years and as supporters of Joash are conspiring to elevate him to his rightful place on the throne. Athaliah is assassinated during the final struggle and Joash is crowned King of Judah. Schulz wrote his opera, in French, in 1785 for performance at the court, and revised it the following year for the French Theatre in Berlin. The work was musically successful but Schulz’s dedication of it to Princess Amalie (with its unfortunate subject of regicide) misfired, leading to his resignation....

Article

Atomtod  

David Osmond-Smith

(‘Atomic Death’)

Opera in two acts by Giacomo Manzoni to a libretto by Emilio Jona; Milan, Piccola Scala, 27 March 1965.

Incorporating video and electronic music with a graphic dodecaphonic score, Atomtod is set inside and outside a group of private nuclear shelters. The Proprietor (baritone) chooses those who are to join him inside the spherical shelters: the Constructor who made them (tenor), a General (tenor), a Priest (bass), and to minister to their needs a Servant (bass) and Slam (soprano), the provider of carnal pleasures. As preparations for war multiply on all sides, the Speaker, on video, assures the populace that ‘there is no cause for alarm’. Individual voices from the crowd (soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone and bass) sing of general foreboding: normal life has been abandoned. The Proprietor’s shelter emerges from the ground; those outside desperately try to gain entrance. Inside the spheres, bourgeois social ritual is pursued in a mounting frenzy of emptiness; outside, crowds are driven hither and thither by loudspeakers around the theatre. Both reach their peak as the bomb explodes. In its wake, as a ‘new crust’ forms on the earth, the mutated chorus lament their fate. A multitude of shelters emerge from the ground. Their occupants, glassy-eyed and half smiling, advance on the audience, while from the auditorium loudspeakers a chant, lacerated by electronic incursions, proclaims their newly acquired immortality....

Article

Richard Langham Smith

(‘The Attack on the Mill’)

Drame lyrique in four acts by Alfred Bruneau to a libretto by Louis Gallet after Emile Zola ; Paris, Opéra’Comique (Salle Favart), 23 November 1893.

The opera concerns the plight of a miller’s family when war breaks out. The daughter, Françoise (soprano), has fallen in love with a stranger, Dominique (tenor). After scenes stressing the family’s love of their work and announcing the marriage of the pair, the Town Crier (bass) warns of war. Marcelline (mezzosoprano), wife of the miller Merlier (baritone), fears that it can bring only destruction.

As hostilities begin, Bruneau responds with realistic clarion calls and military marches. Françoise is appalled by the carnage; emphasis on realist detail to elicit a moral reaction is characteristic of the opera. The enemy captain appears, accusing Merlier and Dominique of complicity. Merlier will be shot at dawn.

In Act 3 as Marcelline engages a look’out in conversation Françoise enters stealthily and kills him. When the body is discovered Dominique is blamed. Françoise confesses but her father tries to persuade the captain to punish him instead....

Article

Attila  

Roger Parker

Dramma lirico in a prologue and three acts by Giuseppe Verdi to a libretto by Temistocle Solera (with additional material by Francesco Maria Piave) after Zacharias Werner’s play Attila, König der Hunnen; Venice, Teatro La Fenice, 17 March 1846.

Verdi had read Werner’s ultra-Romantic play as early as 1844, and initially discussed the subject with Piave. However, for his second opera at La Fenice, the composer eventually fixed on Solera, the librettist with whom – at least until then – he seems to have preferred working. Solera set about preparing the text according to his usual format, with plenty of opportunity for grand choral tableaux such as are found in Nabucco and I Lombardi; but the progress of the opera was beset with difficulties. First Verdi fell seriously ill, and then Solera went off to live permanently in Madrid, leaving the last act as only a sketch and necessitating the calling in of the faithful Piave after all. Verdi instructed Piave to ignore Solera’s plans for a large-scale choral finale and to concentrate on the individuals, a change of direction that Solera strongly disapproved of. The première, whose cast included Ignazio Marini (Attila), Natale Costantini (Ezio), Sophie Loewe (Odabella) and Carlo Guasco (Foresto), was coolly received, but ...

Article

(‘Attilius Regulus’)

Opera seria in three acts by Johann Adolf Hasse to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio ( see Attilio Regolo (libretto by Metastasio) above) after the historical writings of Silicus Italicus, Punica vi and passages of Horace and Cicero; Dresden, Hoftheater, 12 January 1750.

The libretto almost wholly lacks dramatic development or significant incidents, though two events are worthy of notice. Barce (soprano), the slave in the house of Pubblio [Publius] (soprano), is given her freedom to return to Africa with her former lover, Amilcare [Hamilcar] (soprano); and the mayor of Rome, Manlius (tenor), accepts the arguments of Regolo [Regulus] (contralto) in Act 2 scene ii, the scene Metastasio said he liked most (letter of 20 October 1749 to Hasse). A sinfonia (1.vii) and the very long orchestrally accompanied recitatives for Regulus (in 1.ii, vii, 2.vii and the last scene of the work) conform closely to the instructions Metastasio sent Hasse. The entire score is a tour de force involving richly varied melodic invention and the use of different keys, major and minor, to depict fluctuating states of mind. Since Hasse was the first to set the libretto, not a single word was left out; this was the first of a series of librettos by Metastasio that Hasse was the first to set. At the opera’s première Hasse’s wife Faustina Bordoni sang Attilia and the alto castrato Domenico Annibali sang the title role....

Article

Lois Rosow

(‘Attis’)

Tragédie en musique in a prologue and five acts by Jean-Baptiste ( see Lully family (opera) §(1) ) to a libretto by Quinault, Philippe after Ovid ’s Fasti, St Germain-en-Laye, court, 10 January 1676.

Lully’s fourth tragedy was known as ‘the king’s opera’ according to Le Cerf de la Viéville (who gave no explanation). Voltaire (Le siècle de Louis XIV, 1751) singled out Atys, along with Armide, to exemplify Quinault’s mastery of the genre. 20th-century scholars have often cited Atys as marking the start of a style period, primarily for its avoidance of subplots and comic interludes in the Venetian manner, along with its ‘Racinian serenity’ (Lionel de La Laurencie’s phrase).

Principal singers at the première included Baumavielle (Time), Verdier (Flora), Beaucreux (Melpomene), Cledière (Attis), Morel (Idas), Aubry (Sangaride), Brigogne (Doris), Saint Christophle (Cybele) and Gaye (Celaenus); principal dancers (all male) were Beauchamp, Dolivet, Faure, Favier, Lestang, Magny and Pécour. Additional productions at St Germain took place in ...

Article

Mary Hunter

(‘Attis’)

Tragédie lyrique in three acts by Niccolò Piccinni (see Piccinni family (opera) §(1)) to a libretto by Marmontel, Jean François (opera) after Quinault, Philippe; Paris, Opéra, 22 February 1780.

Marmontel’s libretto follows Quinault’s (set by Lully, 1676) except for the tragic end. In this later version, Cybele (soprano) does not transform Attis (alto) into a pine tree; rather, the opera ends with the suicide of Attis and choral mourning. Marmontel also omitted the Prologue and the divertissements, limited the accessory singing roles to two companions, Idas (alto) and Doris (soprano), added aria texts and regularized some recitative verses. At the 1783 revival in Paris, which was more successful than the première, a happy ending was substituted.

Piccinni’s music is remarkable for its startling effects, unexpected dynamic shifts and striking textures. This is evident at the beginning of the overture: a quiet semibreve chord in the strings is joined halfway through the bar by the winds, ...

Article

Michael Fend

[Aucassin et Nicolette, ou Les moeurs du bon vieux temps (‘Aucassin and Nicolette, or The Customs of the Good Old Days’)]

Comédie mise en musique in four acts by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry to a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine after Jean-Baptiste de la Curne de Sainte-Palaye’s fable Les amours du bon vieux tems; Versailles, 30 December 1779.

The troops of Bongars, Comte de Valence (bass), are besieging the chateau of the elderly Garins, Comte de Beaucaire (baritone/bass). Aucassin (tenor), Garins’ son, is unwilling to defend his family since his father has forbidden him to marry the orphan Nicolette (soprano), but he finally goes off to fight the intruders on condition that he will be allowed to bid farewell to her after a victorious battle. When the Vicomte de Beaucaire (tenor) and Garins learn from Nicolette that she cannot reject Aucassin, she is imprisoned in the castle’s tower. Aucassin returns victorious from the battle, but Garins refuses to fulfil the promise he made to him. In revenge, Aucassin sets his prisoners free and an enraged Garins orders his son to be thrown into the dungeon. Nicolette escapes from the prison tower while two sympathetic, humorous officers, Marcou (tenor) and Bredau (bass), look on. In vain she implores Aucassin to submit to his father’s will before she flees. Aucassin, too, is freed by his father, who assumes that Nicolette will die in the surrounding woods. A shepherd (bass) helps Aucassin to find her. Meanwhile Bongars returns to the chateau declaring that Nicolette is his daughter: she had been abducted by the Beaucaire family, who were unaware of her identity. Aucassin and Nicolette meet in the final act, but she again fails to persuade him to give her up. The couple are ready to commit suicide as Garins, Bongars and their troops approach. After Nicolette’s identity is revealed her marriage to Aucassin is announced....

Article

(‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’)

Opera in three acts by Kurt Weill to a libretto by Bertolt Brecht; Leipzig, Neues Theater, 9 March 1930.

Weill’s correspondence with his publishers (Universal Edition) records how his collaboration with Brecht began in April 1927 with the idea of using the poet’s ‘Mahagonny-Gesänge’ (from the collection Hauspostille) as the basis for the Songspiel Mahagonny (see Mahagonny). Later, however, in his article ‘Zur Aufführung der Mahagonny-Oper’ (Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten, 8 March 1930), he describes the Songspiel as ‘a stylistic study by way of preparation for the operatic work, which was already begun and, the style having been tried out, was then continued’.

That the composer wished retrospectively to relegate the Songspiel to the status of a mere ‘Stilstudie’ is understandable. But why he should also claim, by backdating the genesis of the full-scale opera, that this was his intention all along remains unclear. He obviously wished to stress the importance of the latter work to his theatrical output, partly no doubt because of Brecht’s rather negative assessment, made public in his ‘Notes’, ‘Anmerkungen zur Oper ...

Article

Adrienne Simpson

(‘The Oculist’)

Singspiel in two acts by Adalbert Gyrowetz to a libretto by Johann Emanuel Veith; Vienna, Kärntnertortheater, 1 October 1811.

The story is based on the libretto (by Armand Croizette and Armand François Chateauvieux) for Louis-Sébastien Lebrun’s opera Les petits aveugles de Franconville (1802, Paris). A shy ex-regimental doctor, Berg (tenor), falls in love with Marie (soprano), the daughter of Pastor Reinfeld (bass). Berg is supported by his friend and patron, the Duke of Steinau (bass), but his wooing is complicated by a crafty rival, Igel (tenor), major-domo of the ducal palace. Pastor Reinfeld has two blind wards, Philipp and Wilhelmine (both sopranos), who have grown to love each other. Berg carries out a successful operation to restore their sight and discovers Wilhelmine to be his long-lost sister. Marie finally admits her love for Berg and the two couples are united, amid general rejoicing.

Contemporary commentators noted the stylistic similarity of ...

Article

Richard Osborne

(‘Aurelianus in Palmira’)

Dramma serio in two acts by Gioachino Rossini to a libretto by Felice Romani , after Gaetano Sertor ’s libretto for Anfossi’s Zenobia di Palmira (1789); Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 26 December 1813.

Despite its outwardly heroic subject matter and its being a commission from La Scala, Aureliano in Palmiro is in effect a Rossinian chamber opera. The heroic and militaristic elements are strongly stylized and the opera’s finest and most characteristic music is written in an idyllic, pastoral vein. There are three central characters: the Roman emperor, Aurelianus (tenor), who has seized Antioch and freed a number of hostages, including Publia (mezzo-soprano); the brilliant Queen Zenobia (soprano) whose expansionist sallies into Syria, Egypt and Asia Minor have angered the Roman leadership; and the Persian prince Arsace, Zenobia’s lover and fearless ally, a part originally written for the celebrated castrato, Giovanni Battista Velluti. The score’s distinctive colour derives in large measure from the character of Arsace, a comely and affecting young man who seems most at home amid the hills and woods of the Euphrates. Under his influence, Zenobia is transformed from a warrior queen to a woman of sensibility, conforming to the mood of an opera where the woods are apostrophized as the source of true, inner freedom, and where a prisoners’ plea for clemency, salvaged from the finale of the revised ...

Article

Carlos Suffern

Opera in three acts and an intermezzo by Héctor Panizza to a libretto by Héctor Quesada and Luigi Illica ; Buenos Aires, Teatro Colón, 5 September 1908.

The story takes place in Córdoba, Argentina, during the Revolution of May 1810 and concerns the love of Aurora (soprano), the daughter of the royalist leader in the city, and Mariano (tenor), a young patriot on the Revolutionary side. He is arrested and condemned to death, but a friend of Aurora’s, Chiquita (soprano), enables them to meet and tries to help them flee. They escape but are surprised by the guard, and Aurora, fatally wounded, dies in the arms of her beloved, singing, ‘Mirad! Es la aurora, Dios la escribe en el cielo con el sol y en la tierra con mi sangre’ (‘Behold the dawn [aurora], God draws it on the sky with the sun and on the earth with my blood’). The sun symbolizes liberty on the flag and arms of Argentina, and dawn, a new age....

Article

Mary Hunter

(‘The Miser’)

Dramma giocoso in three acts by Pasquale Anfossi to a libretto by Giovanni Bertati ; Venice, Teatro S Moisè, autumn 1775.

L’avaro is in many ways a conservative work, relying on a traditional commedia dell’arte plot. The miser, Signor Orgasmo (bass), chooses an old, deaf, but rich suitor, Macobrio (bass), for his daughter, Rosalinda (soprano), but she wants to marry the young and attractive Felicino (tenor). Signor Orgasmo’s son Steffanello (bass) wants to marry Laurina (soprano), a young woman whom the miser himself desires. A servant, Tortora (soprano), plays a minor role. In order to remove his son from amorous competition, Signor Orgasmo plans to send him to America; by pretending to prefer the old man to his son, Laurina persuades him to keep Steffanello at home. Felicino manages to enter the miser’s home in the guise of a Moluccan astrologer and predicts that he is to become extremely rich. The two plots eventually converge in the Act 2 finale, where the miser is duped into signing marriage contracts in the belief that this will expedite the promised fortune....

Article

Paul Griffiths

Pair of music-theatre pieces by György Ligeti to his own text; Stuttgart, Württemberg Staatstheater, 19 October 1966.

Ligeti’s achievement in Aventures is a theatre without words, owing less to Blacher than to Beckett, silent films, comic strips and the interest in vocal acoustics he discovered when he arrived in Cologne in 1956. Three singers (soprano, contralto, baritone) and seven instrumentalists (flute, horn, cello, double bass, harpsichord, piano doubling celesta, percussion) join in a stream of episodes that includes a nonsense ‘conversation’ without accompaniment, a male solo of drunken exhibitionism, a chattering hubbub interrupted by isolated cries, and finally, a contralto ‘aria’ of solitariness and expectation. The result, as Ligeti has said, is ‘an imaginary stage action that is undefined as to content but precisely defined as to the emotions displayed … one experiences a sort of “opera”, imagining the fantastic vicissitudes of imaginary persons on an imaginary stage’. The new vocal techniques explored by Stockhausen, Berio, Kagel and others provide the means for this precise definition of emotions, while the speed and suddenness of the cutting guarantee that pathos is subverted by wit, mystery by earthiness, lyricism by bathos....

Article

John C.G. Waterhouse

(‘Dro the Aviator’)

Opera in three acts by Francesco Balilla Pratella to his own libretto; Lugo di Romagna, Teatro Comunale Rossini, 4 September 1920.

Although Pratella was the one trained musician to sign the first few futurist manifestos, this most famous of his operas (composed 1911–14) only incidentally celebrates the machine age: basically it is a naive symbolic drama about escape from the flesh into pure spirit. Dro (tenor) becomes disgusted with the decadent sensuality that surrounds him: he therefore seeks refuge by the sea, and then flies upwards, in a primitive monoplane, towards ‘that other, inverted sea, even deeper and more limitless’. The plane crashes almost at once; but Dro expires only gradually, beside its shattered remains, serenely identifying himself with the sky above him.

Pratella’s music is most convincing when it is least futuristic – especially in passages where contemplation of Nature is expressed in radiant arabesques reflecting the composer’s interest in Romagnan folksong. His crude use of‘modern’ dissonance relies much too heavily on parallel motion and the whole-tone scale. However, the opera has the historical interest of using Luigi Russolo’s futurist ‘noise machines’ (...