The Duenna

"The Duenna" is a three-act comic opera, mostly composed by Thomas Linley the elder and his son, Thomas Linley the younger, to an English-language libretto by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. At the time, it was considered one of the most successful operas ever staged in England. [Frisk, Roger. "English Theatre Music of the Eighteenth Century" (London, 1973) p.414] , and its admirers included Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt and Lord George Byron.

First performed in the Covent Garden Theatre on November 21, 1775, "The Duenna" was performed seventy-five times in its first season, and was frequently revived in Britain until the 1840s. In total, 254 performances of the opera had been held from its opening in 1775 to the end of the 18th century. Two modern operas based on Sheridan's libretto have been performed: Sergei Prokofiev's "Betrothal in a Monastery" (composed 1940-1), and Roberto Gerhard's version of 1945-7.

The writing of "The Duenna"


After the triumph of The Rivals, and having effectively chosen the life of a playwright over that of a lawyer, Sheridan needed a commercial success to cement his position economically and culturally. To do this he skillfully used to his advantage the resources available to him at the time. He judged correctly the popular trend in the last quarter of the 18th century theater towards operas, pantomime and music. [Auburn, Mark. 'Theatre in the age of Sheridan and Garrick' in James Morwood and David Crane (eds) "Sheridan Studies" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)]

"The Duenna" was considered a pastiche opera, though not by choice but as a result of the "extraordinary circumstances in which it was cobbled together." In 1772-73, Sheridan and Elizabeth Linley had a courtship, eventually eloping due to the opposition of their parents towards the relationship. This incident was to later become a major theme in the opera. (Louisa's elopement so she could marry Antonio.) After his marriage to Elizabeth Linley in April 1773, their parents eventually relented their opposition to the couple.Fiske, Roger. 'The Duenna,' in "The Musical Times" Vol. 117. (Musical Times Publications: March, 1976)]

Using the musical experience of Elizabeth's father, Thomas Linley the elder, Sheridan asked him to provide music for "The Duenna"; whilst refraining from telling him about the true nature of the opera nor giving him all of the lyrics to it. The remaining lyrics in the opera were written to fit melodies from the Italian operas of that time, as well as some Scottish tunes made popular in ballad operas. The Scottish tunes were later sent to Linley as they needed harmonizing. Linley gave these tunes to his son, Thomas Linley the younger, to harmonize. Linley the younger had proved to be a source of inspiration for his father when creating music for the opera. Illustrating his disdain for Sheridan's decision to incorporate parts of other operas in "The Duenna", Thomas Linley the elder wrote to David Garrick:

Influence of the plot and characters

The basics of the plot of "The Duenna" originate in the tradition of Spanish honour dramas and the play includes many features of the genre. Its nearest predecessors are John Fletcher's "The Chances" and Sir Samuel Tuke's "The Adventure of Five Hours". However, for the benefit of the polite 18th-century audience, Sheridan left out the risqué situations of the previous honour dramas, so that when Louisa escapes from her father's house, the street is not the dangerous place her father has threatened her with. It is, in fact, very safe.

Sheridan's personal life also provided models for the plot and characters, as was also the case in The Rivals. Louisa is a sketch of Elizabeth Linley/Sheridan; both have beautiful voices, both are forced by their fathers into marrying wealthy men whom they detest, and both flee to convents to avoid those marriages. The quarreling of Ferdinand and Antonio can also be traced to the brotherly quarreling of Richard and Charles Sheridan contemporary to the writing of "The Duenna". [Morwood, James. "The Life and Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan" (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985) p.55]

The songs

The songs in "The Duenna" were among the fundamental reasons for its success. While it does owe its heritage to the Ballad opera of the 1720s (John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" being the most famous example) the songs in "The Duenna" were more technically complex and required trained singers in the lead roles.Troost, Linda V. 'The Characterizing Power of Song in Sheridan's "The Duenna",' in "Eighteenth Century Studies" Vol. 20] The musical score was a combination of successful works by other composers, traditional ballads and new compositions. About half of the pieces are new, composed by Linley the elder and (mainly) by Linley the younger. Editions of the vocal score were published but an orchestral score was never printed; hence the original scoring of this most popular opera may never be heard again.

Act 1
1. Song (Antonio): Tell me, my lute, can thy soft strain
2. Trio (Antonio, Louisa, Don Jerome): The breath of morn bids hence the night
3. Air (Ferdinand): Could I her faults remember
4. Air (Antonio): I ne'er could any lustre see
5. Air (Antonio): Friendship is the bond of reason
6. Air (Louisa): Thou canst not boast of fortune's store
7. Air (Don Jerome): If a daughter you have, she's the plague of your life
8. Air (Clara): When sable night, each drooping plant restoring
9. Air (Carlos): Had I a heart for falsehood fram'd
10. Trio (Isaac, Louisa and Carlos): My mistress expects me

Act 2
11. Song (Isaac): Give Isaac the nymph who no beauty can boast
12. Song (Carlos): Ah! sure a pair was never seen
13. Glee (Jerome, Ferdinand and Isaac): A bumper of good liquor
14. Song (Carlos): O, had my love ne'er smil'd on me
15. Trio (Antonio, Carlos, Louisa): Soft pity never leaves the gentle breast

Act 3
16. Song (Don Jerome): Oh, the days when I was young
17. Song (Clara): By him we love offended
18. Song (Antonio): How oft, Louisa, hast thou told
19. Air (Clara): Adieu, thou dreary pile
20. Glee and Chorus (Father Paul, Francis, Augustine, and Friars): This bottle's the sun of our table
21. Duet (Louisa and Clara): Turn thee round, I pray thee
22. Chorus: Oft does Hymen smile to hear
23. Final ensemble (Jerome, Louisa, Ferdinand, Antonio, Clara): Come now for jest and smiling

Writing for the talent

Sheridan wrote many of the roles in "The Duenna" to match a specific performer's ability, tailoring the text to the capacities of the singer. For example, the tenor Michael Leoni was cast for the role of Don Carlos, but his heavy German-Jewish accent meant that he could not deliver long lines of dialogue. To counter this problem Don Carlos's speeches were cut and his dialogues turned into duets and trios. [O'Toole, Fintan. "A Traitor's Kiss: The Life and Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan" (London: Granta Books, 1998) p.105] John Quick, who had proved himself as a great actor of Sheridan's comic characters as Bob Acres in "The Rivals" and Doctor Rosy in "St. Patrick's Day", was given the part of the equally ridiculous Isaac Mendoza; Mrs. Green, the original Mrs Malaprop, was given the role of the duenna.

Textual corruption

In his "Reminiscences", Michael Kelly tells the story that in 1807 he was appearing in "The Duenna" at Drury Lane, as Ferdinand. One morning he went out for a ride, and returned home to find Sheridan with pen and ink correcting his printed copy of the dialogue. 'Do you act the part of Ferdinand from this printed copy?' asked Sheridan. Kelly replied that he had done so for 20 years. 'Then you have been acting great nonsense,' came the reply, and Sheridan went through correcting every sentence. Kelly adds, 'What could prove his negligence more than correcting an opera which he had written in 1775 in the year 1807; and then, for the first time, examining it and abusing the manner in which it was printed?' [H. van Thal (Ed.), "Solo Recital - The Reminiscences of Michael Kelly" (Folio Society, London 1972), 265.]


The scene is Seville.

tage history

"The Duenna" was first performed on the 21st of November 1775 at Covent Garden Theatre, London. The play catered to the reputation of the Covent Garden Theatre as the home of low comedy, the comedy of the jape, the leer and the pratfall. ['Theatre in the age of Sheridan and Garrick' in James Morwood and David Crane (eds) "Sheridan Studies" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)] . However this was also the traditional home of opera and musical entertainment, beginning with Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" (Covent Garden Theatre is now called the Royal Opera House). The opera was an immediate hit, with 75 performances in its first season and a total of 254 performances in the 25 years between its opening and the end of the Eighteenth Century.

Modern Reworkings

"The Duenna" has two modern reworkings that use the storyline of the opera but not the original music. The first is by the Spanish Catalan exile Roberto Gerhard in 1947-49. The second is by Sergei Prokofiev in 1940 (first performed in 1946 owing to the Second World War) - Prokofiev changes the name of the play to Betrothal in a Monastery.


ee also

* [ "The Duenna" at Project Gutenburg]

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