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ETOs Duenna comes to Lighthouse

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The most successful British opera produced in this country given first performance in 230 years

This autumn Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre for the Arts will host the English Touring Opera’s new production of The Duenna, an opera by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Using recently discovered manuscripts, this will be the first time the opera has been performed in its original form in over 230 years.

For 75 years, The Duenna was the nation’s favourite opera. It enjoyed unprecedented success, establishing the fortunes of the Covent Garden Theatre, with performances of it quickly appearing all around the English-speaking world.

ETO have commissioned the Southampton-based academic Dr William Davies as editor-in-chief of The Duenna score. Using his expertise in academic research as a historian, he is responsible for the 'new' parts of the score - roughly a third of the opera which has not been performed for over 230 years. This new score uses a combination of recently discovered manuscripts which pre-date those used in the final published score (published some 20 years after the first performance), as well as existing manuscripts. William worked in conjunction with conductor Joseph McHardy, who was able to interpret stylistic elements, ensuring that the score was idiomatically correct.

Davies is based at the University of Southampton, not in the music department but the archaeology department. As well as being the spearhead in producing this rare new score, he can also give some clue as to the phenomenal success this opera once enjoyed: this was the most successful British opera to be produced in this country. He has found records that show that this was performed around the world - as far afield as Jamaica just 4 years after the first performance.

The plot – a young woman who flees rather than be forced by her father to marry a wealthy man – shares many similarities with Sheridan’s own recent elopement involving the composers’ daughter/sister, Elizabeth Linley, just 18 months previously. For this reason, Sheridan kept the play’s subject hidden from the Linleys, commissioning arias by post, and one at a time.

This is a rare chance to hear the music of the ‘English Mozart’, or Thomas Linley Jnr. Linley was Britain’s great hope for a “master” composer in this era, but sadly drowned aged just 22. The opera earned the highest praise from the likes of Byron and Dr. Johnson, as well as the ordering of three Royal Command performances from King George III.

Due to its success, Sheridan retained the exclusive performance rights by not publishing the work for almost 20 years. In this time, the opera was amended each time it was performed, meaning the final published work differed considerably with the original. For the first time in 230 years, English Touring Opera will perform roughly a third of the opera which will not have been heard since the first performance.

Directed by Michael Barker-Caven, conducted from the harpsichord by Joseph McHardy, and designed by Adam Wiltshire, the production features established artists of the theatre and opera stages, including Richard Suart and Nuala Willis.

The Duenna plays at Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre for the Arts, Friday 1 – Saturday 2 October


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