Three-act opera commissioned by Opera North and awarded an Arts Council bursary Libretto by Edward Marsh from the novel by Daphne du Maurier

  • 3(pic)2(ca)33/4331/3perc/cel.hp/str[]
  • chorus
  • 11 singers
  • 2 hr

Programme Note

A nameless girl, employed as a maid, falls in love with the dashing Maxim de Winter. Forced to choose between her employer and Maxim, the girl chooses the latter and leaves to join him on his estate at Manderley. Although kind and gentle, Maxim cannot understand why his wife continues to make faux pas, continually reviving the memory of Rebecca his first wife, now deceased. The story unfolds to reveal that the housekeeper, out of unrequited love, has misled his wife from the outset, encouraging her to reenact moments from Rebecca’s own life. With the discovery of Rebecca’s body under the sea, the housekeeper’s treachery is revealed. In a fit of desperation she sets fire to Manderley, removing all traces of her memory.


Act One
Scene One - The Hôtel Côte d'Azur, Monte Carlo

Over breakfast, Mrs Van Hopper, a rich American widow spending the season in Monte Carlo, suddenly announces her decision to return immediately to New York - to the deep distress of the young English girl currently employed as her companion. No sooner has Mrs Van Hopper left the table, than the girl scribbles a hurried note of farewell to the elegant Maxim de Winter, whom she has met at the hotel and with whom she has fallen secretly in love.

Maxim appears, demanding an explanation of this sudden departure, and abruptly offers the girl a choice: either she must accompany Mrs Van Hopper to New York as her paid companion, or she can return to England with him - as his wife. Bewildered and overjoyed, the girl accepts his unconventional proposal.

Mrs Van Hopper can hardly believe that her gauche young companion has landed such a catch as Maxim de Winter - and expresses her disbelief in no uncertain terms, adding that, of course, he can't possibly be in love with her: his first wife, Rebecca, who was so tragically drowned at sea, was simply too beautiful, too talented - how could the girl hope to replace such a paragon?

At first the girl is overawed by this onslaught, but her confidence is restored at the thought that, whatever the world might say, she really is going to marry Maxim de Winter and become the new mistress of Manderley.

Interlude: The honeymoon in Venice and the journey to Manderley

Scene Two - Manderley, Maxim de Winter's country seat on the Cornish coast

Manderley is almost alive with excitement and curiosity at the expected arrival of the master and his new bride, who enter to a rather formal welcome from the staff, but are greeted warmly be Beatrice, Maxim's sister, her husband Giles, and Frank Crawley, Maxim's agent. Beatrice expresses the hope that her new sister-in-law will bring a fresh lease of life to Manderley - perhaps even revive the famous Manderley Ball - but remarks how different she is from Rebecca. The bride becomes increasingly agitated as this remark is re-echoed again and again at every turn.

The servants are introduced, and finally the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who greets the new mistress coldly, comparing her unfavourably with Rebecca.

As the girl fearfully surveys her new home, everywhere everything reminds her of Rebecca.

Act Two
Scene One - Manderley: Midsummer Eve

It is the day of the Manderley Ball and there is already a hint of thunder in the air. The young mistress thanks Mrs Danvers for the suggesting her choice of fancy-dress and for keeping it a secret from her husband. Privately, she hopes that the success of the Ball will bring her closer to him.

In a moment of carelessness, she breaks a small china Cupid and is guiltily hiding the pieces, when a strange man enters the room. He is clearly well known to Mrs Danvers, who now reappears and grudgingly introduces him as Jack Favell, Rebecca's cousin. As Favell leaves, he asks for his visit not to be mentioned to Maxim.

As Maxim enters, Frith reports that Mrs Danvers has accused Robert, the footman, of stealing the missing Cupid. The mistress of Manderley must undergo the twofold humiliation of admitting her clumsiness and apologising to her own housekeeper. No sooner is this question settled, however, than Maxim bursts into a fury at Mrs Danvers and forbids her ever to allow Favell to enter the house again.

When his wife has gone upstairs to change, Maxim wonders whether she ever regrets their marriage. But his doubts are interrupted by the arrival of the first guests: Giles and Beatrice, Colonel Julyan and his daughter, and Frank Crawley. They are all in fancy-dress. Suddenly, the hostess makes her entrance at the head of the stairs. She is dressed as Lady Caroline de Winter and stands, radiant, before the portrait of this most beautiful of the family ancestors. The silence is shattered by Maxim's outburst of fury: he orders his wife to change, to get out of that costume, into anything else, anything but that! He storms out, leaving Beatrice to explain that Rebecca had worn this same costume at the last Manderley Ball.

Scene Two - The Same

The girl confronts Mrs Danvers, who has clearly engineered this further humiliation. But Mrs Danvers lives only for her memories of Rebecca, and the hypnotic malice of the housekeeper's raving drives the girl into a state of hysteria and despair. Suddenly the spell is broken by the sound of rockets, signalling that a ship has gone ashore in the bay below.

Act Three
Manderley: early the following morning
Prelude: The Storm

Maxim has disappeared, and his wife is overcome with a sense of futility: she has failed to erase the memory of Rebecca or to make a success of her marriage. She longs to explain about the dress.

When Maxim reappears, he has already forgotten the events of the night before. The salvage-diver has discovered Rebecca's boat lying at the bottom of the bay - and Rebecca's body lying in the cabin. Maxim is forced to confess his feelings of guilt at keeping secret what he knows of Rebecca's death and, in so doing, reveals that - far from loving Rebecca - he hated her.

Jack Favell enters, with Colonel Julyan close behind, and accuses Maxim of causing Rebecca's death. He summons Mrs Danvers to bear witness that Rebecca had intended to divorce Maxim and marry him instead, but she denies that this was true: Rebecca had merely toyed with Favell, as she had with so many other men. When it emerges, however, that Rebecca in fact knew that she was dying of cancer and consequently took her own life, Mrs Danvers is overwhelmed. She pauses briefly on the stairs, a broken woman, before going on up into the West Wing. Colonel Julyan escorts Favell from the house.

The girl is filled with relief to learn that Maxim did not love Rebecca. Alone at last, and with Rebecca'' shadow no longer between them, husband and wife fall into one another's arms.

But disaster has struck Manderley: fire has broken out in the West Wing. Maxim rushes upstairs to help, but is driven back by the flames which seem to issue from Rebecca's room, so reverently preserved by Mrs Danvers. As the new Mrs de Winter stands beside her husband, Manderley burns…and obliterates all that was left behind of Rebecca.