Opera Profile: Robert Gerhard’s ‘The Duenna’

By John Vandevert

The Duenna was the only opera written by Spanish-Catalan composer Robert Gerhard (1896-1970), a student of the serial composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) himself an opera composer.

Inspired from the eponymous 1775 story by Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and set in 18th century Seville, the three-act opera is a comical story about double-crossing and love triangles under the nose of the dominating father Don Jerome. The work’s music is a mixture of serialism and romanticism, but the former part was said to have been frowned upon by Gerhard later in his life. 

The opera was written at a time when the composer was beginning to reach more heavily into his cultural roots, other works during the period like his balletic setting of 16/17th century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes’ story Don Quixote and Soirées de Barcelone two examples of his creative focus. Despite its cultural theme, the opera was never popular in Spain itself, but rather found acclaim in the United Kingdom where it was premiered both on-air (1949) and on the stage (1992). In the premiere, the role of Don Jerome was sung by Richard Van Allan, the only one to sing at the 1992 premiere and on the 1996 recording.

The opera was formally composed from 1945-47, the same year that World War II had ended in the Nazi defeat and seven years away from the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Shortly after completion, in 1949 the BBC Radio had premiered the work on a live-broadcast by conductor Stanford Robinson who took the job as conductor from 1949 to 1953. In 1951, the opera was revised and premiered again at the International Society for Contemporary Music festival in Wiesbaden, Germany. However, these revisions were not well received by critics at the time. 

The opera was neglected until 1992 when it was given its English-language premiere by the Teatro Lirico Nacional in Madrid, conducted by Antoni Ros-Marbà, and then the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. Opera North also gave the work its UK premiere but it was not recorded. In 1994, the Bielefeld Opera performed a new version of the work. Since the 1990s, the work has not been revived, although a recording by Opera North and conductor Antoni Ros-Marbà was completed in 1996.

Generally, it is considered that the opera was a monumental failure for Gerhard’s career.


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