The Silent Woman
Edita Gruberova - Die Schweigsame Frau - 1976
Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman), Op. 80, is a 1935 comic opera in three acts by Richard Strauss with libretto by Stefan Zweig after Ben Jonson's Epicoene, or the Silent Woman.
Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, also known as Epicene, is a comedy by Renaissance playwright Ben Jonson. The play is about a man named Dauphine who creates a scheme to get his inheritance from his uncle Morose. The plan involves setting Morose up to marry Epicoene, a boy disguised as a woman. It was originally performed by the Blackfriars Children, or Children of the Queen's Revels, a group of boy players, in 1609. Excluding its two prologues, the play is written entirely in prose.
The first performance of Epicoene was, by Jonson's admission, a failure. Years later, however, John Dryden and others championed it, and after the Restoration it was frequently revived—Samuel Pepys refers to a performance on 6 July 1660, and places it among the first plays legally performed after Charles II's accession.
The story line of an old man marrying a young woman who turns out rather differently to what he expected has its roots in classical antiquity: the play Casina by Plautus (251-184 B.C.) being an early example. Perhaps the closest progenitor is from the Declamatio Sexta, a Latin translation of mythological themes from the Greek sophist Libanius. Jonson's comedy had been used before as the basis for an opera: in 1800 Antonio Salieri's Angiolina ossia Il Matrimonio, and in 1810 Stefano Pavesi wrote the opera Ser Marcantonio which in turn formed the basis for Donizetti's Don Pasquale with characters based upon the Commedia dell'arte (thus Morose becomes Don Pasquale who is based on Pantelone). Later still, in 1930 there was Mark Lothar's Lord Spleen (in German).
Zweig had discovered Ben Jonson sometime earlier, and had successfully adapted Jonson's Volpone for the German stage prior to being approached by Strauss for a libretto. Zweig used a German translation of Epicoene by Ludwig Tieck in 1800, with the subtitle Das Stumme Maedchen or das Stille Frauenzimmer depending on the edition.
Zweig's libretto makes several major changes to Jonson's play. The most important is perhaps the character of Sir Morosus. In Jonson, "Morose" is not a sea captain, but merely a rich old man with a dislike of noise. Furthermore, Morose dislikes his nephew (Sir Dauphine) and plans to disinherit him through the marriage. Zweig on the other hand develops a much more sympathetic character.
DIE SCHWEIGSAME FRAU
(The Silent Woman)
Comic opera in three acts by Richard Strauss
with libretto by Stefan Zweig after
Ben Jonson's Epicoene, or the Silent Woman.
Sir Morosus, a retired admiral
Widow Zimmerlein, his housekeeper
Schneidebart, a barber
Henry Morosus, nephew of the admiral
Aminta, his wife
Isotta, opera singer
Carlotta, opera singer
Morbio, opera singer
Vanuzzi, opera singer
Farfallo, opera singer
Other actors, neighbors
Premiere, 24 June 1935
Sir John Morosus:
Bass. [We would, of course, in England, refer to him as ‘Sir John’, but neither Strauss nor Zweig was able to get the hang of the British honours system, and Sir Morosus he became!] A retired Admiral, he lives in London, looked after by his Housekeeper. During his days in the service, a gunpowder magazine exploded near him. Although he was not injured, since then he cannot bear any sort of noise, including loud voices. His heir is his only relative, his nephew Henry, but it is so long since he has heard anything from him that he assumes he must be dead. Morosus is a lonely man and his Barber suggests that maybe he should marry—he would then have company and an heir. However, Morosus would only consider marriage to a silent woman—and where will he find such a creature? Suddenly, a visitor arrives, the long-lost Henry, whom Morosus is delighted to see. Then Henry announces that he has brought his troupe of actors and singers with him, including his wife, Aminta, also a singer. Morosus feels that to perform in public is a disgrace to the family and disinherits Henry. Henry and Aminta hear that Morosus is looking for a wife and set about finding someone suitable. Aminta, Carlotta, and Isotta, all members of the troupe, dress up as prospective brides, and Aminta, disguised as Timida, presents herself as a modest and quiet young lady, whom Morosus at once chooses. No sooner are they married, in a mock-ceremony conducted by more actors, than she throws off all pretence at being the demure miss and becomes a bossy and shrieking virago. Morosus cannot bear it. Henry offers to find him grounds for divorce, but when this ploy fails he and Aminta, feeling guilty at causing Morosus such distress, remove their disguises and he realizes it has all been a pretence. At first angry, he soon sees the funny side, and even admires their acting ability—their troupe must be good, after all. He now ‘adopts’ Henry and Aminta as son and daughter and thus his rightful heirs. Aria: Wie schön erst, wenn sie vorbei ist! (‘How beautiful is music, especially when it is over!’). Hans Hotter was long associated with this role. Created (1935) by Friedrich Plaschke.
Contralto. Housekeeper to Sir Morosus, a retired admiral who cannot bear any noise. She tells his Barber that she would be quite happy to marry him, but the Barber knows Morosus would not contemplate it. Created (1935) by Helene Jung.
Baritone. Barber to Sir Morosus, he has learnt how to handle the old seaman. He offers to find him a wife, a quiet woman who will be a suitable bride for a man who cannot bear any noise. Created ( 1935 ) by Matthieu Ahlersmeyer.
Tenor. Husband of Aminta and nephew and heir of Sir John Morosus. Together with his wife, an opera singer, Henry runs a troupe of travelling theatricals, putting on operas, and known as the Vanuzzi Opera Company. His uncle considers this a disgraceful way to earn a living, making an exhibition of oneself in public, and disowns Henry. Worried that Morosus will take a wife who will then become his heir, Henry sets about deceiving his uncle. Three ladies in Henry's company disguise themselves as prospective brides, and Morosus, totally taken in by this ruse, chooses the most demure and quiet one, called ‘Timida’ (who is Aminta in disguise). Henry arranges a mock wedding—the lawyer and priest are again disguised members of his troupe. Once married, ‘Timida’ turns out to be noisy and aggressive, and Morosus cannot wait to be rid of her. Henry offers to find him reason to divorce her, and even poses as her past lover. But eventually he relents and admits to his uncle that it has all been a hoax. Fortunately for him, Morosus can see the joke, admires their acting ability, and reinstates Henry as his heir. Duet (with Aminta): Dich verlassen? Dich entbehren? (‘Forsake you? Renounce you?’) This was the role in which Fritz Wunderlich first came on to the international scene, when he sang it at the Salzburg Festival in 1959. Created (1935) by Martin Kremer.
Soprano. Wife of Henry, the nephew of Sir Morosus. She and her husband run a troupe of travelling singers and actors. Morosus has disinherited Henry and disapproves of Aminta. When Morosus announces his intention of taking a wife, the young couple realize they must intervene or they will lose their inheritance. Aminta poses as ‘Timida’, a quiet and demure young woman, and Morosus decides to marry her. A mock wedding is arranged, but as soon as they are safely ‘married’, ‘Timida’ turns into a noisy, bossy, and inconsiderate wife and Morosus becomes desperate. Aminta feels guilty about deceiving the old man in this way and causing him so much distress. Eventually, she and Henry throw off their disguises and admit it has all been a deception. Fortunately for them, Morosus is able to see the joke. Created (1935) by Maria Cebotari.
Soprano. A member of the troupe run by Morosus's nephew Henry. She poses as a possible wife for Morosus, but her loud chattering and high‐flown ideas soon convince him that she would be totally unsuitable. Created (1935) by Erna Sack.
Mezzo-soprano. Member of a troupe of travelling actors and singers, run by Morosus's nephew Henry. She poses as a possible wife for Morosus, but her unsophisticated personality and broad country accent are enough to make him discount her as a suitable bride. Created (1935) by Marion Zunde.
Bass. A member of Henry Morosus's troupe of travelling players, after whom the company was named. Created (1935) by Kurt Böhme.
Setting: a room in Sir Morosus' house in a London suburb, around 1760.
Retired naval captain Sir John Morosus is very intolerant of noise after having survived an explosion on his ship. For some years he has been retired and living with his housekeeper who looks after him well, although he finds her chatter annoying. His barber arrives and after an argument with the housekeeper that disturbs Morosus, tries to calm down the Captain. He tells Captain Morosus that he should take a quiet young woman. At first Morosus is skeptical: is not a quiet woman like sea without salt? The barber assures him that he knows a dozen "quiet doves" who would want to marry an honorable man like him. Morosus starts to warm to the idea, when suddenly his long-lost nephew Henry appears. He is warmly welcomed: Morosus dismisses the idea of marriage and makes Henry his "son and heir".
However, when Henry reveals that he, his wife Aminta and his friends are an opera troupe, Morosus reacts in horror particularly to the idea that Aminta is an opera singer. The captain throws the opera troupe out of his house and disinherits Henry. He instructs the barber to seek a silent woman for him to be his wife the very next day and then retires to bed. The barber reveals to the troupe how rich Morosus is ("sixty, seventy thousand pounds"). Aminta says that she will not come between Henry and his inheritance and offers to leave Henry. Henry tells Aminta that he cannot live without her even if it means losing his inheritance. The Barber has an idea. What if the opera troupe acts out a drama in which the ladies of the troupe have the roles of the prospective brides and they enact a sham marriage? The Bride will then become very noisy and they will act out the divorce. Henry likes the idea: his uncle has insulted the troupe, so they will show him their abilities "and who is the fool shall be fooled". The scene ends with a glorious celebration of the wonderful plan.
Die Schweigsame Frau (Strauss), Act 1
Munich, 1971, with Kurt Moll, Reri Grist, Barry McDaniel and Kurt Grobe
The housekeeper helps Morosus put on his finest dress-jacket. The Barber arrives and reassures the captain that he has arranged all of the details for the marriage ceremony. He then introduces the three potential brides. Carlotta stands forward acting as "Katherine" a simple country girl. Morosus is not keen: she has spent too much time with calves and become one herself. The Barber next introduces Isotta, playing the role of noble lady educated in a wide range of subjects. Morosus is not impressed by this and is suspicious of her ability to play the lute. Lastly, the Barber introduces Aminta acting as the modest and shy "Timidia". Morosus is quite captivated by "Timidia" and tells the barber "she is the one" and orders him to get the priest and notary for the marriage ceremony. Vanuzzi and Morbio act out the roles of parson and notary and the sham marriage takes place. Farfallo arrives with the rest of the troupe playing sailors who have come to celebrate the marriage, making a lot of noise. Morosus is driven mad by the noise and ejects them from the house.
Aminta has become quite touched by the genuine love of Morosus, who wants to know why she seems troubled. Eventually, she has to carry out the barber’s plan and starts shouting at Morosus in feigned anger. She wreaks havoc in the house pulling down the curtains and throws some of the captains most precious possessions onto the floor ("away with this junk"). Then Henry arrives to save the day. He forcefully deals with Timidia, and assures his uncle that he will deal with everything. A grateful Morosus thanks Henry: he has survived many sea battles and hurricanes, but would not stand a chance against someone like Timidia. Henry sends the captain off to bed, where he dozes off. Now alone, Aminta and Henry then sing of their love for each other. Morosus awakes and calls down: is everything all right? Yes says Henry. Morosus falls back asleep with a deep sigh which counterpoints with Amita’s sighs of love as the scene closes.
Die Schweigsame Frau (Strauss), Act 2
The next day Aminta has hired "craftsmen" who make noises as they hammer nails and slam doors. There is a noisy parrot who squawks. In addition, she has appointed a pianist (Farfallo) and a singing teacher (Henry) who practice Monteverdi’s "L’inccronaziane di Poppea" with her. The captain appears and is completely devastated. The Barber walks in and introduces a "Lord Chief Justice" (Vanuzzi) and "Two lawyers" (Morbio and Farfallo) who discuss the prospective divorce. However, "Timidia" contests the divorce and they reject every case for divorce. The barber argues that she has had relations before the marriage to Sir John and the two "honorable ladies" (Isotta and Carlotta) attest to this. The Barber also introduces a "witness" (Henry) who attests that he has had carnal relations with Timidia.
Morosus scents victory and is about to celebrate when the lawyers raise a further barrier to divorce: the marriage agreement did not stipulate the virginity of the bride, so "you will have to keep her now". Morosus is close to a nervous breakdown. Henry calls an end to the charade and all stop acting and all are revealed as their true characters. Aminta asks the captain's pardon. After the captain realizes he has been fooled his initial anger turns to laughter as he sees the funny side of a troupe of actors outwitting him. Overjoyed, he makes peace with the troupe of actors as they leave and gives his blessing to Henry and Aminta’s union and proclaims Henry again as his heir. He is pleased with himself and the world after his narrow escape and has at last found the peace he has longed for. The opera ends with a monologue of Morosus: " A rare delight it is to find a silent, beautiful girl, but it is more delightful when she belongs to another man".
Die Schweigsame Frau (Strauss), Act 3