Opera Scotland

Golden Legend The Golden Legend

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Arthur Sullivan (born London, 13 May 1842; died London, 22 November 1900)


Joseph Bennett


Narrative poem The Golden Legend (1851) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82), itself derived from the mediaeval German legend Der arme Heinrich.



First Performance: Leeds (Town Hall), 16 October 1886.

First Performance in Scotland: tbc.



This dramatic cantata for soloists, chorus and large orchestra by Sullivan was enormously popular from its first performance, during the opening run of perhaps his mostt successful comic opera, The Mikado. It was immediately ranked as one of his greatest works, and was heard throughout the country during Sullivan's lifetime. It quickly overtook Mendelssohn's Elijah in frequency of performance, and is the most prominent piece of its kind produced in Britain before Elgar's Dream of Gerontius.

The Golden Legend continued to be popular during the early decades of the twentieth century, but performances have been scarce since the Second World War. There was a decline in performance of all Sullivan's serious work between the wars, and there may also have been a reaction against its literary source, a German legend, though admittedly Tannhäuser, Faust and similar works do not seem to have suffered unduly. Its absence from the repertoire, along with other works by composers such as Costa, Cowen and Mackenzie, can make it difficult for us to understand the tradition from which Elgar's choral works came.



Lucifer (baritone)

Prince Henry (tenor)

Ursula, wife of Gottlieb (mezzo-soprano)

Elsie, Ursula's daughter (soprano)

A Forester (bass)


Plot Summary

In a brief Prologue, Strasburg Cathedral is attacked during a storm by Lucifer and his attendant evil spirits, attempting to tear down the Cross. They are driven off by the ringing of bells.

Prince Henry lies ill in his castle of Vautsberg on the Rhine. He has been advised by physicians from Salerno that the only cure is the blood of a maiden who will volunteer to die for his sake. He considers this to be an impossibility. Lucifer visits him in the guise of a medical man who plies him with alcohol in order to corrupt him.

Villagers sing an evening hymn as the Prince rides past. Elsie has had a vision of Christ in a dream and is therefore thinking of self-sacrifice. She hopes such an action will save Henry, but her mother is horrified at the thought. Elsie starts to pray, and the Prince, under Lucifer's influence, approaches her.

They set off with attendants to travel to Salerno, where Elsie will be sacrificed to fulfil the prophecy. Henry is extremely reluctant to countenance this. On the way they encounter a group of pilgrims, one of whom is Lucifer in disguise. He plans to disrupt proceedings. The Prince and Elsie are apprehensive about the future The party makes camp overlooking the sea. Henry is fascinated by the sight of the sea and the ships sailing on it. Elsie is also gripped by the beauty of the sea under the night sky.

At the Salerno Medical School their arrival is awaited by Lucifer, now disguised as a doctor. As Lucifer leads Elsie to her sacrifice Henry reveals this whole trip was a ruse to test her loyalty. His men break down the doors to rescue her from Lucifer's clutches.

Back home, Ursula waits for news of her daughter. A forester in the Prince's service comes to tell her that Elsie still lives. She offers a prayer of gratitude.

At the Prince's castle, he has been cured of his disease, and preparations are in hand for the wedding of Elsie to Henry. He tells her of the legend of Fastrada, wife of Charlemagne, who lived in this castle. At her death, the heart-broken Charlemagne had thrown her golden ring into the lake. The Prince draws parallels with Elsie's selfless love for him.

The work ends with a Choral Epilogue in which there is general rejoicing.

The Cast

 daughter of Ursula
Prince Henry
 of Hoheneck
 wife of Gottlieb

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