Elaine Siversen explores the coming year’s opera themes.

One larger-than-life character dominates the stage in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and in a very well-known opera by Verdi. Almost 100 years before, Salieri wrote his version of this comedy with its finale of shenanigans in Windsor Forest when the merry wives are the victors over a jealous husband and the would-be seducer, Falstaff. Salieri’s Falstaff opens the 2022 year of Wednesday night operas.

A theme has been planned across the four weeks of each month, but the fifth Wednesday in March, June, August, and November is an exception. In ‘Opera Oscura’ we can hear some lesser-known operas from the Baroque and Classical repertoire. This year they are by Myslivecek, Hasse, a double bill of Gossec and Méhul, and finally, a lesser-known opera of Gluck.

January and February

February brings two more anniversaries. The stone guest by Alexander Dargomizhsky premiered 150 years ago and is the story of Don Juan taken almost word-for-word from Pushkin’s play, The stone guest. Rossini’s Zelmira, which premiered 50 years before that, is based on a play by Pierre-Laurent de Belloy. Rimsky-Korsakov’s first opera, The maid of Pskov, begins the month. Its libretto, from a play by Lev Mei, recounts a fictitious incident in a campaign of Ivan the Terrible. Finally, Giordano’s Madame Sans-Gêne, a comedy which includes Napoleon, is based on a play by two Frenchmen Victorien Sardou and Émile Moreau.

March and April

We turn to ‘Biblical Figures’ in April and, while these events occur in the Bible, the opera stories are fictionalised with dramatic embellishments. Verdi’s character, Nabucco or Nebuchadnezzar, appears in several books of the Bible while Montéclair’s Jepthé, the tragic story of Jephthah and his daughter, is from the Book of Judges. The Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon seeking wisdom (found in I Kings) inspired Gounod to write his opera. The biblical account has little detail of the meeting of the rulers, so a love story has been created for Queen Balkis with one of Solomon’s subjects. The opera to be presented two nights before Good Friday will be based on the last days of Jesus from the perspective of Mary Magdalene. Massenet wrote the sacred drama Marie-Magdaleine to be performed on Good Friday in 1873. The famed contralto, Pauline Viardot, sang the title role and the opera was praised by Tchaikovsky, Gounod, and Bizet.

May and June

‘Myths and Legends’ have always been a reliable source for opera composers and librettists, and we begin this theme in May with the 250th anniversary of the premiere of the 15-year-old Mozart’s Il sogno di Scipione with a libretto by the great Metastasio based on Cicero’s writings, so a star-studded line-up here. Also in May, Médée (Charpentier), Merlin (Albéniz), Persée et Andromède (Ibert) and Orfeo ed Euridice (Bertoni) are scheduled, the latter two as a double bill.

In June, ‘Historical Persons’ make their appearance on the operatic stage with Croesus by Reinhard Keiser, the most famous name in Hamburg before Telemann. Croesus reigned for 14 years from 560BC as King of Lidia until his defeat by the Persian king, Cyrus the Great (Cyrus II). Much of the story of Croesus is legendary, including his descent from Hercules. Historically, he is credited with being the first ruler to issue gold coins and the phrase, ‘rich as Croesus’, has added to the legendary biography of an actual king. Margherita d’Anjou was the wife of King Henry VI of England. Meyerbeer wrote this opera about Queen Margaret, a major player in the Wars of the Roses. Her contemporary, the Duke of Suffolk, praised ‘her valiant courage and undaunted spirit’ while Edward Hall wrote: “This woman excelled all other, as well in beauty and favour, as in wit and policy, and was of stomach and courage, more like to a man, than a woman.” 

The operas in June continue with Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, the historical figure being the first Doge of Venice in the 14th century. The final opera of the month is not about a person but is based on that person’s stories. Marking the 200th anniversary of the death of Ernest Theordore Amadeus Hoffmann, author, composer, music critic, artist and jurist, our tribute to a remarkable man will be Offenbach’s The tales of Hoffmann.

July and August

‘French Librettists for French Opera’ in July brings us almost totally French fare with all composers born in France except Meyerbeer who was born in Berlin. He spent a great deal of his life in Paris where, from the age of 30, he wrote French operas. Six years after Meyerbeer’s first Paris opera, his spectacular grand opera, Les Huguenots, premiered with the libretto written by Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps. Although most of the stories of the following operas in July are not French stories, Frenchmen wrote the librettos for Le toréador by Adam and L’heure espagnole by Ravel, presented in a double bill, followed by Massenet’s Sapho and, finally, Magnard’s Guercoeur for which he wrote his own libretto.

In August, the operas feature ‘Kings: Real and Legendary’. Handel’s Xerxes is loosely based on Cyrus I, King of Persia, while Mozart’s Idomeneo is a legendary monarch, the King of Crete. After the Trojan War, the action takes place in Crete involving a Trojan princess and the famous Electra, daughter of the Greek king, Agamemnon. It was one of Mozart’s late operas and is considered to be one of his greatest.

One of the greatest of the legendary kings is King Arthur, immortalised so vividly in literature that many archaeologists have searched for evidence of his existence, and some believe that they have proved that he was a real person, if not the heroic figure of the legends. In Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus we find the characters of Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin and Mordred. The downfall of the Round Table is foretold leading to the final days of Arthur and Camelot. Finally, Verdi’s opera A masked ball concludes with the assassination of the real Swedish king, Gustav III.

September and October

The four operas of September are devoted to the same main character, with story variations between operas. Tasso’s Saracen Sorceress appears firstly in Lully’s The tragedy of Armide, followed by Gluck’s Armide, Haydn’s Armida and Rossini’s Armida. The inspiration for these operas was Torquato Tasso’s epic poem set during the Crusades. Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) tells how Armida has been sent to stop the Christians delivering Jersualem from the Saracens by killing the fearsome warrior, Rinaldo. As she looks upon the handsome sleeping knight, she falls in love with him and spirits him away to an enchanted garden where she holds him as a lovesick prisoner. Eventually, Rinaldo is released from Armida’s enchantment.

It was an early 18th century poet, Tommaso Grossi, who wrote a poem about the First Crusade that became the source of Verdi’s I Lombardi, but some famous Italians of the distant past are the originators of most stories of the October operas where the theme is ‘From Italian Literature’. The stories of the double bill of Rachmaninov’s Francesca da Rimini and Puccini’s Gianni Schicci are found in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Handel’s Semele is even older, coming from the pen of the Roman poet Ovid and his Metamorphoses of 8 AD, while the story of Vivaldi’s Griselda can be found in Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

November and December

The unexpected continues in December with five very different ‘Unexpected Endings’. In Nielsen’s Maskarade an arranged marriage turns out well for separated lovers. In Gluck’s Der betrogen Kadi a judge is duped into marriage with the wrong woman but the deception is revealed before the wedding. This is teamed with Cimarosa’s L’impressario in angustie in which the impressario’s production is plagued by three feuding prima donnas and a romance but is suddenly ended when the impressario is declared bankrupt. 

The comedy in Christmas Eve by Rimsky-Korsakov is provided by a witch, a sorcerer, and the Devil. The love interest involves the hero asking the Tsarina for her boots, and his sudden appearance with the boots on Christmas Eve after he is thought to have committed suicide. The last opera of 2022, Mozart’s Lucio Silla, was premiered on 26 December 1772, 250 years ago. The tyrant abuses his power as a ruler, condemns subjects to death then unexpectedly pardons them and retires to private life.

We feel sure that you’ll enjoy the monthly themes planned for the operas of 2022 with their wide variety of composers and wonderful singers. You’ll hear these complete operas in At the Opera at 8pm every Wednesday.