• 2(pic).2(ca).2(bcl).2(cbn)/4.3.2+btbn.1/2perc.timp/hp/str
  • SATB
  • 2 sopranos, 2 mezzo-sopranos, lyric tenor, dramatic tenor, baritone, bass baritone, bass
  • 2 hr 15 min

Programme Note

Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, under a grant from the Ford Foundation, for Maria Callas as a mezzo-soprano.

"Following the success of her third opera Nausicaa, which premiered at the 1961 Athens Festival, Peggy Glanville-Hicks was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera to write Sappho.
The libretto by Lawrence Durrell tells the story of Sappho, the ancient Greek female poet of Lesbos, weaving fragments of her poetry into the text at key dramatic points. Peggy Glanville-Hicks composed the score with Maria Callas in mind for the lead role.
But this fourth and last opera never made it to the stage. The production was cancelled and Peggy, then in her early fifties and beset by health difficulties, found herself within a couple of years no longer able to compose anything substantial. She narrowly escaped dying of a serious brain tumour, and returned to Australia from Greece a decade later at the age of 64 - no longer composing, but still an active and passionate advocate for new music." (Stephen Adams, ABC Classic)

Synopsis reproduced from her Masters Thesis with kind permission from Fiona Campbell: Sappho is an opera in three acts with the libretto taken from the play in verse of the same name by Lawrence Durrell, published in 1950.

Time and Place: The island of Lesbos, circa 650 B.C ..

Act 1

Scene 1 The spacious room of a rich Greek family, opening on to a courtyard.

It is early morning. The servants are busily tidying and trying to remove Diomedes before their lady, Sappho arrives. Sappho and Minos enter, they discuss her discontentment in life and with Kreon. Kreon enters and announces that he has hired a diver, Phaon, to find the family tablets (records), which had been submerged many years before in an earthquake and in whose ruins the child Sappho had been found. Phaon, the twin brother of Pittakos was thought to be dead, but had in fact spent several years on an island in isolation, recovering from leprosy. He is invited to the symposium to be held that evening.

Scene 2 The Symposium.

The room is the same as in scene 1, but set with a banquet and lit for night time. Phaon and Sappho discover that they are kindred spirits and she sings his poem at the symposium. A debate between Minos and the drunken poet Diomedes ends in disagreement, which leaves Sappho and Phaon alone to declare their love.

Act 2

Scene 3 A headland overlooking the sea.

Phaon tells Sappho that he has found the tablets and must now leave. Minos enters and tells of the death of Diomedes' son. Sappho goes to comfort Diomedes.

Scene 4 Sappho's house as in scene 1. The room is decorated with torchlights to receive the General.

A great crowd welcomes the victorious General Pittakos. Pittakos is delighted to see his brother again and offers him an administrative post in Attica, which Phaon refuses, but they part on good terms. Sappho enters and Pittakos reveals that he killed Diomedes' son for cowardice. Sappho is furious and she tells him to retire from public life. He resolves to consult the Oracle, she scoffs at this and attempts to kill him. Minos enters and tells them that Diomedes has taken poison.

Scene 5 Diomedes' farmhouse.

Diomedes explains to Sappho that he is dying of shame, because he coveted his son's young wife, Chloe. He knows that Sappho is the Oracle. She confesses that it was she, pretending to be under the Oracle's drug-induced trance, who sent Pittakos away to war because she was tired of his onerous affections. Thus she blames herself for the death of Diomedes' son and she begs his forgiveness, but he has already died.

Act 3

Scene 6 The cave of the Oracle.

Sappho prepares to assume the role of the Oracle. Kreon enters and reveals that one of the tablets recovered was an unfinished letter from his dead wife, speaking of a child, possibly their daughter, Sappho. He believes that he may have married his own daughter. The penalty is the confiscation of all his possessions and either banishment or the sword, according to the people's vote. Sappho will share this fate.

Scene 7 The room in Sappho's house as in scene 1.

The vote is for exile. Pittakos keeps Sappho's children as hostages, so that she will do his bidding and act as a spy for him in Corinth. Sappho, after thinking there was nothing left for her to feel, is now devastated at having to leave her children. She is left alone to prepare for banishment and contemplate her fate.



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