Operas in One Act

By Lawrence, Richard | Gramophone, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Operas in One Act


Lawrence, Richard, Gramophone


The discipline of producing a short taut single-act opera often brings the best out of a composer. Here, Richard Lawrence introduces 10 one-act operas that are the musical and dramatic highlights of the genre

One-act operas come in two guises. There's the category that includes Wagner's Das Rheingold and several examples by Richard Strauss, of which the best known are Salome and Elektra: pieces that provide a full, albeit short, evening's entertainment. And there are those that require a stablemate, the most celebrated examples being Cavalleria rusticana by Mascagni and Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. The former was the winning entry in the second competition for one-act operas organised by the publisher Edoardo Sonzogno; Pagliacci was seen by both composer and publisher as a follow-up, and the two operas are the very embodiment of one-acter pairings, though in fact Pagliacci consists of a prologue and not one but two acts.

It is this second category that is problematic: with the possible exception of the pairing of Ravel's L'heure espagnole with his L'enfant et les sortileges, double bills seem to mean box-office death. How to choose operas that complement each other? I have seen Zemlinsky's Eine florentinische Tragodie coupled with his Der Zwerg (good), and Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex performed with L'heure espagnole (not so good). (And in the first category, the premiere of Strauss's Daphne has been combined with a performance of his Friedenstag--three hours of new music plus an interval! It must have been unendurable.)

The consequence is that many fine operas languish in obscurity. The 10 that I've selected aren't obscure, but performances are infrequent. All are in the second category except for Daphne and, perhaps, Iolanta (the latter shared its premiere with that of The Nutcracker, no less). But there are many others worth investigating: several by Rossini and Holst, one by Poulenc, Weber's Abu Hassan, the Britten church parables ... I'd particularly like to see the three early Hindemith operas (Morder, Hojfnung der Frauen being the first), about which the conductor Fritz Busch wrote so amusingly in his memoirs. Anyone care to found the SPOSO (Society for the Promotion of Short Operas)?

(10) Ravel

L'heure espagnole

Soloists; LPO / Kazushi Ono

FRA Musica [F] [DVD] FRA008;

[F] [Br] FRA508 (11/13)

This is the saucy story of a clockmaker's wife who uses her husband's absence for an hour each week to entertain her gentleman friends. A customer so impresses her with his strength as he carries grandfather clocks upstairs and down again that in the end, exasperated by her two lovers, she asks him to go upstairs 'sans horloge'. In this Glyndebourne production, Stephanie d'Oustrac leads an excellent cast, who cavort in a wonderfully cluttered set.

(9) Zemlinsky

Eine florentinische Tragodie

Soloists; Royal Concertgebouw

Orch / Riccardo Chailly Decca

[M] [2] 473 734-2DF2 (12/97[R])

Like Salome, Zemlinsky's three-handed shocker is based on a drama by Oscar Wilde. The setting is 16th-century Florence. Simone, a merchant, returns home to find his wife, Bianca, in the company of Prince Guido Bardi. Simone plays with the stranger like a cat with a mouse. When they come to fight, Bianca urges her lover to kill her husband. But it is Guido who dies, and the married couple who embrace. Under Chailly, the tension is almost unbearable.

(8) Hindemith

Morder, Hoffnung der Frauen

Soloists; Berlin RSO / Gerd Albrecht

Wergo [F] WER60132-50 (2/89)

And here's another shocker, staged in Stuttgart in 1921, four years after the Zemlinsky was premiered in the same city. The action is as obscure as the title--Murderer, Hope of Women, after an expressionist play by Oskar Kokoschka. A man and a woman meet, witnessed by a group of warriors and servant girls. He orders his men to brand her; she stabs him; there's more horror. …

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