Opera Scotland

Caractacus

Music

Edward Elgar (born Broadheath, Worcs, 2 June 1857; died Worcester, 23 February 1934)

Text

H A Acworth.

 

Premieres

First Performance: Leeds (Town Hall), 5 October 1898.

First Performance in Scotland: tbc.

 

Background

The choral cantata Caractacus is perhaps the closest Elgar came in his completed works to the composition of an opera. It was commissioned by the Leeds Triennial Festival in the wake of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee of 1897, and, perhaps inevitably, Acworth's text has a tone of celebration and pride in the achievements of the British Empire, in contrast to that of the Romans. This now unfashionable tone resulted in the work's fall from favour in the second half of the twentieth century. However, that actually forms a relatively small proportion of the work. It contains a great deal of highly attractive music, much of it characterised by similarity to Elagar's popular pastoral vein of composition, beautifully orchestrated. This quality is hardly surprising when it is considered that in his catalogue of works Caractacus appears as Opus 35. The Enigma Variations follow on (Op 36). Next come Sea Pictures (Op37), The Dream of Gerontius, (Op 38), and Pomp and Circumstance Marches (Op39).

 

Characters

Caractacus, the British chieftain (baritone)

Eigen, his daughter (soprano)

Orbin, a minstrel, her lover (tenor)

Arch-Druid (baritone)

Claudius, Roman Emperor (bass)

Bard (bass)

 

Plot Summary

The cantata opens in the native army's encampment in the Malvern Hills, as Caractacus and his troops arrive in preparation for battle with the Romans. The chorus mourns the extent of the damage already caused to the country by the invaders. In a meditation Caractacus praises his army and prays for his heroic deeds to continue, before developing a sense of resignation. His daughter Eigen arrives, with Orbin. She has been consulting the Druid Maiden, but the omens are not good for her future. Caractacus himself will consult the Druids the next day, but the Spirits of the Hill now urge him to rest, while the watchmen keep guard.

The next day, in the sacred oak grove, the Arch-Druid and chorus assemble and the Druid Maidens dance before they invoke the help of the god Taranis. Orbin is ordered to read the omens. He foresees the Roman victory, but the Arch-Druid decides to conceal this, and when Caractacus comes to hear the prediction he is advised to go forth and conquer. Orbin attempts to warn Caractacus of the true forecast, but is banished by the Arch-Druid while the chorus call down a curse on him.

A Woodland Interlude leads to a solo in which Eigen anticipates her reunion with Orbin. When he arrives their duet anticipates their future together.

Eigen has had a further meeting with the Druid Maiden in which she learns that Caractacus's destiny is to be taken to Rome. He now arrives with his defeated troops, and delivers a noble lament.

The Druid Maidens sing of the defeat and the embarkation of the British captives, after which the orchestra illustrates their journey to Rome. The arrival in the city is illustrated by a march showing the defeated Britons and vistorious Romas, culminating in the entry of Claudius. The Emperor invites Caractacus to speak, and the chieftain follows with an aria in which he pleads for the Romans to spare the defeated Britons, and to teach them the benefits of order, law and liberty. Eigen and Orbin lament that they have been taken from their beautiful homeland, then, in a second aria, Caractacus pleads for Eigen and Orbin, though he is happy to die himself. The crowd plead for them all to be killed, but Claudius pardons them all. The work ends with a rousing chorus of celebration.

The Cast

Arch-Druid
 
Caractacus
 a British chieftain
Claudius
 Emperor of Rome
Eigen
 daughter of Caractacus
Orbin
 a minstrel, Eigen's lover

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