The Duenna

The Duenna

The play The Duenna was first performed at Covent Garden on November 21st 1775. The words were by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the music by the Linleys, father and son, and perhaps also daughter. It was billed as a 'Comic Opera', using the term in the English sense to describe a play with music rather than a through-composed opera in the continental sense - though even here, in the German Singspiel and the Spanish zarzuela, the mixed form was often used for comedy.
The scene depicted comes from near the end of the piece, and shows Donna Louisa and Donna Clara revealing their true identities to Don Ferdinand (Louisa's brother and Clara's lover), while fat Friar Paul looks on in amazement. The story is full of elopements and disguises which successfully confuse unsatisfactory lovers, unsuitable suitors, and unfeeling fathers alike.

There have been two reworkings of the piece, though none have used the original music. Roberto Gerhard composed new music for it in the 1940's and so did Prokofiev, who renamed it 'Betrothal in a Monastery'. Of the two, the latter has been by far the more successful and was performed this year at Glyndebourne.

Dramatis Personae

Don Jerome tenor
Donna Louisa, his daughter soprano
Don Ferdinand, his son tenor
Isaac Mendoza, a rich merchant tenor
Don Carlos tenor
Margaret, Louisa’s duenna mezzo-soprano
Donna Clara, in love with Ferdinand soprano
Don Antonio, in love with Louisa tenor
Lopez, Ferdinand’s manservant speaking part only
maids, servants, friars and masqueraders

Scene: Seville, mostly in and around Don Jerome’s house.

Notes taken from the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, and augmented.

Sheridan eloped with Elizabeth Linley in 1772 and married her. He began work on The Duenna in 1775 soon after the Rivals premiere. He persuaded Thomas Linley the elder to provide music for the play. His son Thomas Linley the younger also composed parts of it, and some songs are set to traditional tunes in the style of the ever popular Beggars Opera.

The elder Linley would not come to London and the consequent composing at a distance was difficult. He did not approve of Sheridan’s methods of ‘compiling’ the music and lyrics as he went along. He wrote to Garrick:

I have already set some airs which he has given me, and he intends writing new ones to some other tunes of mine. My son has likewise written some tunes for him, and I understand he is to have others from Mr Jackson of Exeter. This is a mode of proceeding in regard to his composition I do not by any means approve of. I think he ought first to have got it entirely new set. NO musician can set a sing properly unless he understands the character and knows the performer who is to exhibit it…

However, what is also true is that Elizabeth Linley had a great part in the putting together of the piece. She may or may not have composed some music, but she certainly orchestrated a lot of it, advised on the traditional tunes for some of the songs, and also advised Sheridan on the composition of the words for the songs.

The elder Linley’s music forms about half the total, and much of this is based on traditional tunes and others’ compositions, eg Morley’s madrigal Now is the month of Maying which gives the tune for the finale to Act III. The younger Thomas composed the overture and some songs including Sharp is the woe [nb horns and strings in the orchestration].

Certain lyrics were set that do not appear in existing copies of the play, and are thus only known through their settings. Only a few of the musical items were published in a vocal score, and none in full score. The overture was published only in parts (c1778) and not in score. Decorated versions of ten of the songs were later included in Domenico Corri’s Select Collection (3 vols, c1785), and four in Thomas Busby’s collection ‘as ornamented by Mrs Billington’ (1801) – Elisabeth Billington, née Weichsel, sang Clara in the 1780’s and 90’s (see below).

The Duenna was performed 75 times in its first season, exceeding the Beggars Opera (63) in 1728. It was performed more frequently than any other Sheridan play during the author’s lifetime, and was revived intermittently up to 1840. There were six editions before the end of 1775, 15 by 1776, 25 by 1778 and a 30th in 1786. Sheridan’s own first edition of the play only appeared in 1794, after many revisions.

On the first performance there was universal praise for the script and admiration for the music.

The versification and matter of the songs are far above the usual vehicles of tunes, and the music is, on the whole, the most judicious association of songs, simple tunes, duets, glees, etc that we ever remember in the theatre… [London Chronicle]

William Hazlitt [1819]: The Duenna is a perfect work of art. It has the utmost sweetness and point. The plot, the characters, the dialogue, are all complete in thmeselves… and the songs are the best that were ever written, except those in the Beggars Opera.

Thomas Moore [1825]: The Duenna is one of the very few operas in our language which combines the merits of legitimate comedy with the attractions of poetry and song.

Sources in the British Library:
printed by Broderip and Longman 1790 BL E.91.f.1-2
printed in The Pianoforte Magazine volume V, 1797-1802 BL D.584
printed for R Burchill 1810 BL R.M.11.c.15

A facsimile of the vocal score printed for C and S Thompson in the 1770's is available from King's Music

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Elisabeth Billington in Love in A Village
In the late 1790's she sang Clara in The Duenna, and her highly ornamented renditions of the songs were printed in 1801.

Mrs Billington, born Elisabeth Weichsel in London in 1770, died in Venice 1818.

Her voice, in its very high tones, was something of the quality of a flute or flageolet, or resembled a commixture of the finest sounds of the flute and violin, if such could be imagined. It was then “wild and wandering,” but of singular sweetness. “Its agility,” says Mount Edgcumbe, “was very great, and everything she sang was executed in the neatest manner and with the utmost precision. Her knowledge of music enabled her to give great variety to her embellishments, which, as her taste was always good, were always judicious.” In her cadenzas, however, she was obliged to trust to her memory, for she never could improvise an ornament. Her ear was so delicate that she could instantly detect any instrument out of tune in a large orchestra; and her intonation was perfect. In manner she was “peculiarly bewitching,” and her attitudes generally were good, with the exception of an ugly habit of pressing her hands against her bosom when executing difficult passages. Her face and figure were beautiful, and her countenance was full of good humor, though not susceptible of varied expression; indeed, as an actress, she had comparatively little talent, depending chiefly on her voice for producing effect on the stage.

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