The Duenna

About this work

Roberto Gerhard (b. 1896 in Valls, near Barcelona) is another one of a large number of European composers who fled Fascism. In his case he left Spain as Generalissimo Franco's forces were about to win the Civil War, and settled in Britain. He became an influential teacher and quite an important composer among those who embraced a twelve tone style. He often used Spanish subjects in his stage music. This opera is in a way symbolic of his two homes, for it is based on a famous English play (by Sheridan) set in Spain. It is a play that has been made into operas by other composers, most notably by Prokofiev in his "Betrothal in a Monastery." Gerhard fell in love with the Sheridan play when his wife brought home a copy in a six-penny edition; he started working on the opera the very day. It was premiered in a concert staging in 1951, s few months before the premiered of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," a work that it resembles to a remarkable degree. It is likely that both composers, facing dramatic ideas originating in the Eighteenth Century, consciously decided to follow the same models: Mozart and early nineteenth century bel canto.

The plot of the opera is a traditional one: A father arranges a financially advantageous marriage for his daughter, who is already found her true love. With the help of her Duenna, she manages to trick her father and the undesirable intended husband. She and her brother marry their true loves, while the Duenna ends up as the rich man's wife.

The style of the opera was described as a "pastiche" by early commentators for the way it moves from purely tonal sections to a free 12-note style. Since it was written, the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke coined the term "polystylisic" to describe his own tendency to do the same thing, and this seems a more apt term for this opera, as well. Sheridan's play includes strophic poetry (such as a serenade and a drinking song) that seems to fit naturally into song forms. Gerhard sets these as purely tonal songs, looking back to conventions popular in Mozart's or Donizetti's comic operas.

In contrast, action scenes, interludes, and other parts that tend to advance the plot become more chromatic, or even atonal, particularly at moments when the plot takes a turn against the heroes and heroines of the story. This, by the way, is not unlike what would happen in a movie musical, where the underscoring might be more dramatic or symphonic, yet when the characters are actually supposed to be singing they move into a popular song form.

Gerhard's mastery of materials is evident in the way he keeps the multiple style of the music from breaking down into a sense of inconsistency or awkwardness. The opera his highly regarded by critics and commentators, but is very rarely staged.