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Roberto Gerhard

Roberto Gerhard’s opera ‘The Duenna’

A studio relay of Roberto Gerhard's opera 'The Duenna' by the BBC in 1949
Composer Roberto Gerhard
Singer Edith Coates
Ensemble BBC Symphony Orchestra
Genre Opera

Roberto Gerhard 1896-1970

The Duenna
Comic opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer and Christopher Hassall

Opera in English enjoyed a new lease of life in the second half of the 1940s, fuelled by the huge success of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945). Britten followed up that success with a pair of smaller-scale operas, a tragedy, The Rape of Lucretia and a comedy, Albert Herring, before turning in 1948 to a very different kind of comedy with a version of John Gay’s eighteenth-century theatrical hit The Beggar’s Opera.

That was not the only revisiting of an eighteenth-century musical play during these years, for between 1945 and 1947 Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970) composed The Duenna, deriving his libretto from the text by Richard Brinsley Sheridan that the Thomas Linleys (father and son) had used for their comic opera in 1775. It is one of the more intriguing coincidences of mid-twentieth-century music that Sergei Prokofiev created an operatic version of the same story at the same time (Bethrothal in a Monastery, 1946).

Britten’s version of the Beggar’s Opera is an arrangement of the original songs and choruses: but Gerhard was drawn to The Duenna by the fact that the action took place in Seville, not by the Linleys’ music. Having left Spain as a political refugee in 1939, and settling in Cambridge, Gerhard was far from nostalgic about the country
under the Franco regime. But, with his strong feeling for the culture of Catalonia, he had long been stimulated by the possibilities of integrating or juxtaposing national musical elements with the kind of modernism that came naturally to him as a pupil and friend of Arnold Schoenberg.

With its focus on masters, servants, the possibilities of disguise, not to mention daughters outsmarting their fathers, the Sheridan/Linley Duenna set up powerful resonances with the famous comedies by Beaumarchais of the 1770s from which Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s Barber of Seville were derived. Yet a mid-twentieth-century modernist could achieve a good deal of comic momentum by avoiding too explicit a neo-classical style, and by exploiting the obvious gaps – musical and otherwise – that existed between 1775 and 1945. (When Stravinsky began to plan his Hogarth-derived opera The Rake’s Progress in 1947, his basic thinking was not so dissimilar.) Gerhard also realised that two Spanish theatrical genres, the tonadilla esénica and the zarzuela, could be invoked within a progressive idiom to an extent that few if any other serious composers of the time were attempting.

Fifty in 1946, Gerhard had a substantial portfolio of vocal and orchestral works to his name, including several ballet scores, but The Duenna was to be his only opera.
His music made relatively little impact in England before the 1960s, and there was no prospect of a commission or guaranteed staging of the piece during its composition. Nevertheless, the occasional performances he did receive, and particularly those of his ballets Pandora and Don Quixote, encouraged the BBC to take on the world premiere of The Duenna and to give a pair of studio performances in February 1949. The then head of music, Sir Stuart Wilson, who had himself been a professional singer, was one of those who made suggestions to the composer after the premiere about possible changes to the score. Without a regular publisher, Gerhard began to make revisions, and later concert performances (for the BBC again, and in Wiesbaden, Germany – both in 1951) reflected these changes, as did the much later BBC broadcast under David Atherton in 1972. But it was only in 1991-92 that The Duenna was actually staged, in Madrid and Leeds (Opera North), in an edition by David Drew which he had begun with the composer’s collaboration. This version was recorded and released on CD by Chandos in 1997.

Gerhard’s own changes to the original version heard on this recording were most extensive in Act 1, though even here the differences between what we hear from 1949 and what was eventually published and recorded in the 1990s do not amount
to root and branch re-composition: they were more matters of trimming and tidying-up. The opera remained closely connected to the version that, in 1949, represented Gerhard’s view of the work at it stood then: and it is especially fascinating to hear how wholeheartedly the singers and players of the time, under Stanford Robinson’s lively and engaged direction, not only kept the tricky score afloat, but also conveyed so much of its textural richness and ebullient goodhumour, as well as relishing its more reflective, lyrical episodes. Radio listeners were helped in following the action by the inclusion of a succinct narration, deriving from the stage directions in the score and describing changes of scene and at least some of the appearances and disappearances of the various characters.
The announcement at the end confirms that Christopher Hassall had provided Gerhard with some supplementary text where the Sheridan original needed amplification.

© Arnold Whittall

Act 1

Scene 1, the street outside Don Jerome’s house.

The tone is set for the comedy to follow as Don Antonio’s plan to serenade his beloved – Don Jerome’s daughter Luisa – from the street below her bedroom window is frustrated by a broken guitar string. After repairs, the tenor sings the first and most florid of his two serenades and, when this provokes no response, proceeds to a livelier song (‘The breath of morn bids hence the night’), whose underlying dance rhythms give early indication of the subtlety with which Gerhard seeds idiomatic Spanish rhythms into his score. This time Donna Luisa responds, but the prospect of an ardent and extended love duet is thwarted by the angry appearance at another window of Don Jerome. After an agitated trio, additional local colour is provided by the entrance of a pair of monks whose function (filled out further in later versions) is to warn of the perils of sin and self-indulgence. As it stands, however, The Duenna is rather less explicit in its counterpointing of the earthy and the unearthly than that other celebrated Seville-based opera, Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Scene 2, in a nearby street.

Don Jerome’s son Don Ferdinand is accompanied by his servant Lopez, and in an extended scena bemoans his frustrated attempt to win the love of the lady Clara (‘Could I her faults remember’). When Antonio appears, he agitates Ferdinand further by recounting his own adventures with Clara (’I did love her, till I found she wouldn’t love me’) and although the two young men might be united in adversity – Luisa being forced by her father into marriage with ‘the Portuguese Jew’ Don Isaac, Clara despatched against her will to a convent – Ferdinand remains deeply suspicious of Antonio’s intentions where Clara is concerned.

Scene 3, the drawing room in Don Jerome’s house.

The opera’s title character now appears. The duenna – Luisa’s middle-aged and allegedly ugly chaperone – has designs of her own on the hapless Don Isaac, and engineers a crucial exchange. After a hectoring Jerome has confined Luisa to her room until she agrees to marry Isaac, he finds the duenna carrying a letter in which
Luisa’s plans to elope with Antonio are set out, and banishes the chaperone forthwith. However, a quick exchange of clothes means that it is a disguised Luisa who leaves the house under her father’s vituperative eye. In a scene with much animated dialogue, there are two well-contrasted arias – for Luisa, as she contemplates her lover’s portrait, and at the end, for the duenna as she floridly plots her revenge (‘So speed you well, sagacious Don Jerome!’).

Scene 4

The two young women Luisa and Clara meet in one of the town squares. Clara sings of the fickleness of love, at least as represented by Don Ferdinand (‘When sable night each drooping plant restoring’). Then, as the scene moves from duet to dialogue, Luisa discusses her plan to find Antonio with the assistance of Don Isaac.
After the scene changes to a riverside location, Isaac and his sidekick, the eminently corruptible priest Father Paul meet Luisa, who not only claims to be Clara but also persuades the men to seek out Antonio for her. Given his own interest in keeping Antonio away from Luisa, Isaac readily agrees, but things soon become more complicated. The act finale builds around the chorus as a group of promenaders stirred by gossip and scandal, and the further complication of Ferdinand, searching for Clara but finding only a hideous old woman – not the duenna – among the milling crowd.

Act 2

Scene 1, a room in Don Jerome’s house.

Dons Jerome and Isaac are in high good humour, believing that Clara has successfully escaped from her ‘old fool’ of a father. Then, In a comically fulsome aria (‘Ay, her beauty will affect you’) Jerome prepares Isaac for his encounter with Luisa, seeking to encourage the increasingly bashful bachelor (‘Woo her briskly’).
But the ‘beauty’ who appears is the duenna in disguise, and an extended musical number makes much play with a seductive, Carmen-like Habanera as Isaac struggles to find the virginal paragon described by Jerome behind the archly mature reality.
The eventual kiss is even more disconcerting for Isaac (‘Upon my soul, one might as well kiss a hedgehog’), but the pretence is sustained into a mock-serene duet and Isaac’s declaration, to Jerome, ‘Oh yes, I’ve softened her’. Reality comes closer as Isaac questions the lady’s age. However, Jerome’s mood improves when Ferdinand appears and the three men finish up with a boisterous drinking song (‘A bumper of good liquor will end a contest quicker’) during which Ferdinand rails at his failure to acquire the crucial information from Isaac about Clara’s whereabouts.

Scene 2

The opera’s only extended orchestral interlude traces a change of place to a room in Isaac’s lodgings and a change of mood as Luisa begins to wonder whether her planned elopement, in the continued absence of Antonio himself, is such a good idea. But Luisa is eventually delighted to observe the approach of her lover, with Isaac and Father Paul in tow.

Scene 3, elsewhere in Isaac’s lodgings.

Luisa and Antonio keep up the pretence that she is, in fact, Clara, and not Isaac’s own intended. In the final exuberant ensemble all three can rejoice in what they sincerely believe to be their impending happiness.

Act 3

Scene 1, a room at a local priory.

Some of the basic confusions are now resolved. Antonio and Isaac both ask Father Paul to officiate at their weddings – something he is reluctant to do until converted by the offer of well-filled purses. Things start to unravel when the real Luisa arrives, closely followed by her brother Ferdinand, who believes that Antonio has run off with the real Clara. Once this last confusion has been rectified, to the strains of a mock-solemn wedding march, the two couples are married. As for the third couple, Isaac and the duenna, whom he still believes to be Luisa, their wedding is being celebrated elsewhere.

Scene 2, back at Don Jerome’s establishment

The Don himself remains convinced that Luisa has after all eloped with Isaac. With a party of guests already singing a Spanish refrain, Jerome greets the various pairs of newlyweds, and the expected frisson occurs when he realises that his ‘dear child’ is actually ‘that ancient iniquity’, the duenna. As explanations proliferate, Jerome grows ever more benign, but it is the duenna herself who sets the final ensemble under way with a splendidly abusive tirade against her husband Isaac and his ‘beard like an artichoke’. As the dance grows more animated, the duenna and Isaac discover that their marriage might not be such a bad thing after all. Yet the presence within the assembled throng of the monks, with their air of memento mori, means that the happy ending has a shadow cast over it. Memories of Don Giovanni are perhaps not so irrelevant, after all.

© Arnold Whittall

Recorded live at the first performance, BBC Radio Theatre, London, 23 February 1949

Original recording from The Harewood Collection

  • Max Worthley
    Don Antonio
  • Victoria Sladen
    Donna Luisa
  • Martin Lawrence
    Don Jerome
  • Denis Dowling
    Don Ferdinand
  • Edith Coates
    The Duenna
  • Marjorie Westbury
    Donna Clara
  • Otakar Kraus
    Don Isaac
  • Parry Jones
    Father Paul
  • BBC Opera Chorus
  • BBC Opera Orchestra
  • Stanford Robinson

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