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George J. Buelow

[Die unglückselige Cleopatra, Königin von Egypten, oder Die betrogene Staats-Liebe (‘The Unfortunate Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, or The Fraudulent State Love Affair’)]

Drama per musica in three acts by Johann Mattheson to a libretto by Friedrich Christian Feustking; Hamburg, 20 October 1704.

The libretto is loosely based on Roman history and the account of Mark Antony by Plutarch. In addition to Cleopatra (soprano), Marcus Antonius [Mark Antony] (tenor) and their children Candace (soprano), the young Cleopatra (Egyptian princess) and Ptolemaeus [Ptolemy] (alto; Egyptian prince), the cast includes Archibius (baritone), governor of Alexandria; Dercetaeus (tenor), freed servant of Antony; Caesar Augustus (baritone); Mandane (soprano), an Armenian princess in love with Ptolemy; Juba (tenor), Mauritanian crown prince; Proculejus (alto), Roman general; and Nemesis (soprano), goddess of vengeance.

Act 1 takes place after the disastrous battle at Actium where Antony led his and the Egyptians’ combined naval forces to defeat by the Romans of Augustus. Antony has fled to an island, where he swears he will become, like Timon of Athens, misanthropic and never again be lured into the arms of Cleopatra. The latter, however, arrives and quickly persuades her lover to rejoin her in another attempt to drive out the Romans from Egypt. Secondary pairings of lovers are established: Mandane (who is in the Roman camp) loves Ptolemy, but in their first encounter in Act 1 she finds him, she thinks, in the company of another woman, not recognizing Candace as his sister. Juba, also from the Roman camp, is attracted to Princess Candace. The Roman general Proculejus also loves Mandane. During a battle between Egyptian and Roman forces at the gates of Alexandria, Juba willingly surrenders to Antony, hoping thus to be brought close to Candace. The act ends with Caesar Augustus plotting to deceive both Antony and Cleopatra by offering his former Roman general freedom if he will lay down his arms, open Alexandria to the Romans, and hand over Cleopatra to him....


[Les fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, ou Les dieux d’Egypte (‘The Festivities of Hymen and Cupid, or The Egyptian Gods’)]

Opéra-ballet in a prologue and three entrées by Jean-Philippe Rameau to a libretto by (Jean-)Louis de Cahusac; Versailles, La Grande Ecurie, 15 March 1747.

Intended to appear as Les dieux d’Egypte, this work was adapted for the celebrations surrounding the dauphin’s second marriage, to Maria Josepha of Saxony. Its theme was fortuitously appropriate: each of the three entrées, ‘Osiris’, ‘Canope’ and ‘Aruéris, ou Les Isies’, culminates in the marriage of one of the Egyptian gods. In the first, Osiris (haute-contre) pacifies a tribe of Amazons and successfully woos the warlike queen Orthésie [Orthesia] (soprano). The second entrée concerns the love of the water god Canope [Canopus] (bass) and Memphis (soprano), a young virgin who is about to be sacrificed to him; at the height of the ceremony, Canopus causes the Nile to overflow and appears on a chariot drawn by crocodiles. He reveals that he is Nilée, the young mortal whom Memphis loves, and thereupon claims her as his bride. The final entrée involves Aruéris [Horus] (...


Virginia Saya

Opera in one act by Dominick Argento to a libretto by John Donahue; Minneapolis, Cedar Village Theater, 14 October 1971.

From an abstract libretto by the children’s theatre director John Donahue (with lines in no set sequence, assigned to no particular character), Argento created a symbolic fantasy based on the guarded interactions of seven people waiting for a train. Their activities are interrupted by abrupt leaps of time and strange entertainments (a cabaret song to nonsense syllables, a puppet show with lifelike puppets, a Viennese operetta duet). Each character performs an aria of minimal self-revelation and carries an item of luggage, the contents of which he or she symbolically protects from the prying of the others. When Mr Owen (tenor), the only named character, is forced to reveal that his suitcase is empty, he is cut off from the group and, in heroic style, sets out on a voyage of self-discovery in a ship built by the puppets....


Richard Taruskin

[Liviyets (‘The Libyan’)]

Projected grand opera in four acts by Modest Petrovich Musorgsky to his own libretto after Gustave Flaubert’s novel; concert performance of fragments, Milan (RAI), 10 November 1980.

Three major scenes and three additional numbers were composed between autumn 1863 and spring 1866. The plot, set in Carthage during the Punic Wars, in many ways parallels that of Serov’s opera Yudif’ (‘Judith’, 1863), which may have excited Musorgsky’s interest in it. The title character (dramatic soprano), a Carthaginian priestess, seduces Mathô (baritone), a Libyan warrior (the alternative title character), so as to regain the sacred veil of the Goddess Tanit which Mathô has stolen from the temple. He is captured and tortured to death, while she, defiled by her exploit, dies in horror immediately thereafter.

Musorgsky never wrote the central dramatic scenes; opulent choral pageantry seems to have been his first interest. Two of the extant scenes represent magnificent temple rites: Act 2 scene ii (temple of Tanit, for women’s voices, including the theft of the veil) and Act 3 scene i (sacrifice to Moloch, for men’s voices, in hopes of regaining it). The short score of the somewhat sugary Tanit scene promises lavish obbligatos for harp, piano and glockenspiel. The remaining large number, a declamatory ...



Anthony Hicks

[Tolomeo re di Egitto (‘Ptolemy, King of Egypt’)]

Opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym adapted from Carlo Sigismondo Capece’s Tolomeo et Alessandro (1711, Rome); London, King’s Theatre, 30 April 1728.

Tolomeo was Handel’s 13th and last full-length opera for the Royal Academy of Music, and the last of the five operas in which the leading female roles were designed for the rival sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, who sang Seleuce and Elisa. The other singers were the alto castratos Senesino (Ptolemy) and Antonio Baldi (Alessandro), and the bass Giuseppe Boschi (Araspe).

Handel revived Tolomeo twice, subjecting it to drastic revision each time. For the production at the King’s Theatre on 19 May 1730 the castrato Antonio Bernacchi took over the title role and Anna Strada del Pò sang Seleuce, while the other roles were adapted for changed voices: the contraltos Antonia Merighi and Francesca Bertolli sang Elisa and Alessandro, and the tenor Annibale Pio Fabri sang Araspe. Handel replaced 12 of the original numbers (including the final ...