THE ROSE OF CASTILE
Music by Michael William Balfe
Book and Lyrics by Augustus Harris and Edmund Falconer
A Popular Opera Rediscovered
In the 20th century, the opera has been considered highbrow by most Americans, although in Italy, its birthplace, the citizenry clamored for new works from composers who were like rock stars. Opera in America, especially, has been the pleasure of an elite of sophisticated music lovers.
Opera afficianados may turn their noses up at the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but he has attracted huge audiences to what must be considered operas. Phantom of the Opera is surely not “musical comedy,” but a tragic opera with dialog. Like the operas of Verdi, songs from it have become popular hits. The Rose of Castile was written by William Michael Balfe, an Irish composer who became famous for operas in English that were considered too “popular” to be taken seriously by critics. His most famous work, “The Bohemian Girl,” was the most often-produced opera of the 19th century, and was translated into many languages. Although not as well-known today, it was still famous enough in the 1930s that it was the setting for a movie by Laurel and Hardy.
Balfe’s operas were written in English and often had spoken dialog. They were often termed “Ballad Operas,” for the tuneful songs that were sprinkled throughout. Though typically quite romantic, they featured comic numbers as well as dialog, which endeared them to a public used to the unrelenting tragedy in the operas of the day. The “Rose” not only contains these elements, but differs from the “Bohemian Girl” in its more elaborate vocal writing, especially for the soprano.
As in the operas of Rossini and Bellini, the soprano was the star of the show, and had the most spectacular music to sing. Operas of the first half of the 19th century were also called “bel canto” for their emphasis on “beautiful singing.” The well-known conductor Richard Bonynge restored many bel canto operas for his wife, Joan Sutherland, who had the ability to negotiate the florid arias in them. This Comic Opera Guild features Karin White, a specialist in the bel canto style. Karin possesses a voice of great beauty and flexibility, which is required by the role of Elvira, Princess of Leon, in “The Rose of Castile.” Tenor Kevin Newell is the muleteer Manuel (actually the heir to the throne of Castile in disguise) who saves her from the clutches of the grasping Don Pedro (Thomas Petiet). The production and keyboard accompaniment are conducted by David Troiano.