The Widow

The Widow. Comic opera in three acts by Calixa Lavallée on a libretto by Frank H. Nelson. Published 1881 in Boston by J.M. Russell, the piano/vocal score is dedicated to 'His Excellency the Count of Premio-Real, Consul General of Spain for the Dominion of Canada and the British and French possessions in North America'. The work consists of an orchestral overture and 30 vocal numbers. The action takes place in the south of France during the Directoire and features a dozen or so characters in a succession of amorous intrigues, misunderstandings, real or imagined plottings, and chance encounters, all leading to a happy ending in the best tradition of French comic opera.

The exact date of the first performance had not been established with certainty in 1991. In the sample issue of L'Album musical published 1 Dec 1881, one reads the following: 'Daily newspapers have announced that Mr Calixa Lavallée has composed an opera, "The Widow." Some have even related the poem. The plot is quite complicated and offers touching scenes. Nothing vulgar however. Mr Frank H. Nelson is the author of the libretto. We still know nothing of the work's merit. But what makes us believe that Mr Lavallée has done well is that Mr C.D. Hess, a well known impresario, has bought the staging rights for three years. The first performance must have been presented in New Orleans on the 23rd of last month'. It has been established however that The Widow was staged at the Chatterton Opera House in Springfield, Ill, on 25 Mar 1882, by C.D. Hess' Acme Opera Company, a US touring company specializing in French comic opera. During this tour in the Spring of 1882, Hess programmed Lavallée's work in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago, but not in New Orleans as was previously believed. In La Nouvelle-France (vol 1, no. 2, 1882), a French journal published in the USA, an anonymous reviewer wrote: 'The music is extremely lively and brilliant. The sections for chorus are melodious and rich in harmony; most of the cavatinas have that seal of elegance and virtuosity that is found only in good comic operas. The orchestration is the work of a master'.

A recording of 11 selections from the work was made in 1967 by RCI which had commissioned Ovid Avarmaa to write a new orchestration, the original version never having been found (RCI 231/RCI 513/RCA LSC-2981). The performers, accompanied by the CBC Winnipeg Orchestra conducted by Eric Wild, were Nona Mari, Joan Maxwell, Heather Ireland, Peter Koslowsky, Peter van Ginkel, Wilmer Neufeld, and Paul Fredette. The same artists presented excerpts on the French television network of the CBC in 1967. The CMH (vol 10) reproduced five excerpts from the piano/vocal score.

A second orchestration was realized 1986 from the piano/vocal score by composer Paul McIntyre who has expressed the opinion, along with John Beckwith, that the original work may have been composed after a French-language libretto. This view is based on the fact that the French title of the opera, La Veuve, appears on the title page. But it is mostly the poor quality of the English prosody that informs this opinion.