opera in Prologue and Three Acts

  • 2(pic)22(bcl)2(cbn)/4221/timp.2perc/hp.pf/str
  • chorus
  • 4 main roles, 8 subsidiary roles
  • 2 hr
  • Irene Dische and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Finnish trans. by the composer.
  • English, Finnish, German

Programme Note


The central characters in The Palace are borrowed from Mozart’s Die Entführung, though distanced from the originals somewhat. Subsidiary characters are modelled on
various functionaries from the court of Haile Selassie and, athough fictitious, the story carries echoes of events from the last days of the Ethiopian Emperor’s court. These sources, however, only provide the base of an original drama that deals with the exercise of authoritarian power. Power not only corrupts – it has a debilitating effect on those who are near its centre. It creates in them a compelling need for escape and for liberty. Yet the result is a ghastly disappointment, for ruthless politics merely transfers power into new hands, where it remains as absolute as before.


The libretto of The Palace has two sources. It borrows the central characters from Mozart's opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, although the librettists have distanced their names and characteristics from the originals somewhat. However, some of the scenes in The Palace may remind you of Mozart's Entführung. The other source is The Emperor, a novel by the brilliant Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski which observes the fall of Haile Selassie, last Emperor of Ethiopia. Yet, although the work is based on these sources they are merely the base of an original drama; the listener need not keep the sources in mind. Basically The Palace deals with exercise of authoritarian power. Power not only corrupts: it has a debilitating effect on those who are near its centre. It creates in them a compelling need for an escape and for liberty. Yet the result is a ghastly disappointment, for ruthless politics merely transfers power into new hands where it remains just as absolute as it was before...

At times the libretto approaches this subject in a satirical vein. The music, too, is lighter, more mobile, more melodic, thinner, than that of the composer's earlier operas.

Two stage sets are required: The Palace Hall and the Palace Gardens. In Act Three the Palace Gates are opened and a front stage is needed for The People. While the Palace is lavish, the outside has the raucous colours of poverty.


Prologue (The Palace hall, early morning)

Petruccio and Ossip, the King's closest men, are worried. Something odd is going on, because the King has not left his bedchamber for three days. The courtiers assemble to sing the traditional morning hymn, but not very successfully. When Ossip finally decides to go to the King, Valmonte stops him from entering the Ruler's bedchamber. Instead, Valmonte sends in the Physician in Ordinary. He explains that the Bassa only needs rest and quiet. The Pillow Bearer, the Keeper of the Purse and the Executioner each express their worry over the Bassa's absence. The peculiar situation also puzzles the courtiers, but Valmonte reassures them and tells them to get back to work.

Act I (The Palace hall. Morning, three days earlier)

Petruccio rehearses the chorus in the morning hymn. He is approached by a newcomer, Valmonte, who asks his help in getting a foothold in the Palace. Petruccio agrees to help. He praises Valmonte to Ossip, but Ossip is deeply suspicious of the newcomer. The Cuckoo lists the stages of the courtly morning ceremonies: the Hour of the Most Venerable Body, the Hour of Assignments and the Hour of Justice. The King, or Bassa, arrives with Queen Constance, greeted by the morning hymn. Fearing that he strangles himself in his own words, the King only speaks through Constance. Hearing that Valmonte has learned new skills abroad - such as the skill to read the stars - the Bassa appoints him the Keeper of the Imperial Door and Secretary of Future Affairs. Constance too is interested in the newcomer.

Act II (The Royal Gardens. The same day)

There are eight scenes, in which the principal characters appears in twos, each pair in turn.
The bureaucrats Petruccio and Ossip - who are not averse even to taking bribes - are angling for the King's favours and are criticizing each other. Ossip's wife Kitty, the Queen's Lady-in-Waiting, is thoroughly bored with her husband. Queen Constance too is weary of being her husband's voice and of the dreary life in the Palace; she feels imprisoned in it. Valmonte extols to her the freedom and pleasures of the outside world and urges her to escape with him. The Queen hesitates, being afraid of the great unknown - the world outside the Palace gates. Kitty works out a plan: she and Constance will escape from the Palace during the evening feast, to mix in the crowd of beggars. The King eavesdrops on this conversation.

Act III (The Palace hall. The evening feast)

The feast is about to begin. According to old custom, the beggars are let in through the gates. They bang their plates. Demanding food. The King - disguised as a beggar - sings a song as a last attempt to persuade Constance to stay in the Palace. Ossip does not recognize the King and regards him as the chief troublemaker; he orders the Bassa to be arrested and flogged. The beggars are chased out of the Palace. Constance and Kitty make their escape. Finally the great gates of the Palace are closed. As everything goes quiet, the doors of the Royal bedchamber are opened, and out comes Valmonte, escorted by the life-guard and carrying the emblems of the Autocrat.

© Aulis Sallinen

The King tenor
Constance soprano
Valmonte baritone
Petruccio tenor
Ossip bass
Kitty high soprano

Physician tenor
Pillow Bearer tenor
Keeper of the Purse baritone
Executioner bass
Cuckoo male or female voice
1 Petitioner bass
2 Petitioner contralto
3 Petitioner baritone
4 and 5 Petitioner tenors
A Servant middle range voice
Defence Council speaking role