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The Aspern Papers

opera in two acts

Music by Dominick Argento
Libretto by the composer
after the novella by Henry James
About The Aspern Papers

In his version of the Henry James novella, Argento transforms a book about a writer into an opera about a composer. Elisabeth Sönderström and Frederica von Stade sang in the premiere.

Cast of Characters
Juliana Bordereau, an opera singer, s Aspern, a composer, t
Barelli, an impressario, b-bar Sonia, a singer, ms
Tina, Juliana's neice, ms The Lodger, a critic and biographer, bar
Pasquale, his servant, b Olimpia, a maid, s
Offstage chorus

The action of Argento's opera occurs in the summers of 1835 and 1895, in a villa on the shores of Lake Como. In 1895, Juliana Bordereau, a former opera singer, remembers her youth and her dead friends, including her lover and impressario, Barelli; Sonia, the singer who became his next mistress; and Aspern, the composer and the love of her life. In flashbacks, she recalls the summer of 1935, when Aspern came to the villa to compose a new work for her, and drowned in the lake.

Act I

Scene 1 (1895)

The Lodger arranges with Juliana and Tina, her neice, to room at the villa. Tina tells the lodger about her aunt's career and her sudden retirement. The lodger asks about Aspern, and tells Juliana that he is a writer and is interested in Aspern's career.

Scene 2 (1835)

Aspern is having his portrait painted as Juliana rehearses an aria from the composer's new opera, "Medea." Barelli asks Aspern to look after Sonia while he's in England.

Scene 3 (1895)

The Lodger is frustrated that he has not been able to talk to his hostess; he hints about his object in coming to the villa and in making love to Tina. Juliana and Tina arrive, and Juliana tries to push the young people together. Juliana then shows the Lodger a portrait, and is suspicious when he offers to buy it. The lodgers confides in Tina that he is afraid Juliana will destroy her mementos of Aspern.

Scene 4 (1835)

Aspern is rehearsing with Sonia as Juliana coaches her. When Juliana steps out, Aspern and Sonia agonize over their love for each other and their friendship with Juliana, who is still Aspern's mistress. They arrange for an assignation that night: Aspern asks Sonia to put a candle in the window so he will be able to find his way across the lake.

Scene 5 (1895)

Tina and the Lodger return from an evening together on the piazza. They learn that Julianna has collapsed while they were gone, and is very ill. The Lodger, searching the house, is interrupted by Julianna, who collapses again.

Act II


The Lodger tells us what he was searching for: Aspern's lost opera, Medea, which Aspern is said to have destrpoyed: he believes it still exists.

Scene 1 (1835)

Aspern brings Julianna the finished score of Medea. As Aspern returns to his office, Juliana, suspecting him, unties the boat and lets it drift away. Aspern decides to swim across the lake to Sonia.

Scene 2 (1895)

When the Lodger returns, Sonia tells him that Juliana has died; Sonia reveals that she has the papers, and tells the Lodger that if he will marry her, she will give them to him. The Lodger refuses.

Scene 3 (1835)

Juliana, in mourning, begins to close up her room and tells Barelli that she is retiring from the stage. She also tells him that Medea has been burnt.

Scene 4 (1895)

The Lodger, having changed his mind, returns to accept Tina's offer. She tells him she has already burnt the papers. He leaves, and she sits by the fire and slowly burns the score to Medea.

Performance History
World premiere
Dallas Opera, Music Hall, Dallas, Texas
November 19, 1988
Juliana: Elisabeth Sönderström
Tina: Frederica von Stade
Sonia: Katherine Ciesinki
Aspern: Neil Rosenshein
The Lodger: Richard Sitwell
Barelli: Eric Halfvarson
Olimpia: Joan Gibbons
Painter/Gardener: John Calvin West
Nicola Rescigno, conductor
Mark Lamos, stage director
John Conklin, set and costume designer
Richard Winkler, lighting designer
Bibliography Search for book about The Aspern Papers at Amazon.com

Dominick Argento: Tina's Aria from The Aspern Papers


Boosey & Hawkes American Arias: Mezzo-Soprano

Boosey and Hawkes 2004

Last update: January 1, 2009