The Ephesian Matron, or The Widow's Tears is a short, one-act comic opera from 1769. With music by Charles Dibdin and words by Isaac Bickerstaff, it is exceedingly silly, poking fun at the conventions of contemporary opera. Originally performed at the Ranelagh Gardens in London, the piece is through-sung (ie, contains no spoken words) due to restrictions on theatrical performance at the time. Essentially, all theatre had to be licensed, but having a piece which contained no speech enabled the authors and producers to evade this legislation. This is unusual for British opera of the time1.
Plot and Characters
The Ephesian Matron is opera on a small scale, having only four characters :
- The Matron, who is grieving the recent loss of her dear husband. A diva role.
- The Maid, a comic role, somewhat bawdy.
- The Father, who is terribly serious.
- The Centurion, the romantic lead, who falls for the charms of the distressed widow.
The plot is an old one, with an uncertain source in ancient Greece or Rome. The story of the Widow of Ephesus has received many interpretations, including a twentieth-century play, A Phoenix Too Frequent by Christopher Fry. The character of the Father does not appear in all versions of the story, and the plot outline which follows is that used in this particular imagining of the tale.
The action takes place in the Matron's husband's tomb, where the bereaved woman declares that she cannot live without her dear, departed spouse. She will remain in his tomb, neither eating nor drinking until she dies alongside her husband. The Maid and her Father try to persuade her not to go ahead with this course of action, but she will not be swayed. The Father sadly leaves the women alone and the Maid comments on the folly of her mistress. Just then, a Centurion happens along - he has been keeping watch at the town gallows and spotted the light in the tomb. Once in the tomb, he also spots the beautiful widow and attempts to rouse her from the grief she so demonstrably feels2. She takes little persuading, and the pair soon share a passionate duet. Having saved this woman from a sad fate, the Centurion leaves, promising to return after his watch ends. However, he comes back far sooner than intended, as the body he was guarding has disappeared from the gallows - for this lapse in his duty, he will surely be punished severely. Luckily for him, the two women are quick-witted and devious - the Matron suggests that they hang her husband's body in the criminal's place, for he has no longer need of his flesh, and one body will do as well as any other. The Centurion agrees, but is caught in the act by the Father3, who accuses him of grave-robbing. He is defended by the women, and within a couple of minutes, a marriage for the Matron and the Centurion is arranged for the following day. The four characters extol the virtues of womankind and enjoy their happy ending.
The musical form of The Ephesian Matron moves between stretches of recitative and conventional arias and duets, ending with a 'vaudeville' praising women and telling the tale of The Lion and the Traveller from the writings of Petronius, a tale made popular in London earlier in the century when it was printed in The Spectator. Along the way, it gently mocks the conventions of the operatic form - the stock characters, the ability to fall in love at first sight, and the negotiations which bring the date of the Matron's marriage to the Centurion ever forward are the chief means by which this is achieved. Several of the arias have tunes which are still catchy to the modern ear, particularly the two comic arias for the Maid - one on the chief benefit of marriage, the other stating that there's 'naught like the wit of a woman'.
Charles Dibdin (1745 - 1814) was a multi-talented man, having a career as an actor and singer from the age of 15 and having his first compositions published at 18. His short pastoral work, The Shepherd's Artifice was performed at Covent Garden in 1764 (with Dibdin in the lead role).
He continued to write similar works, but in 1767 he began a collaboration with Isaac Bickerstaff (1733 - 1808). The two of them wrote a series of successful comic operas of various lengths including Love in the City4 (1767), Lionel and Clarissa (1768) and The Padlock (also 1768), until Bickerstaff fled to France in 1772 to escape prosecution for homosexuality. Success tended to elude the duo in London, with only The Padlock achieving a notable run. However, Lionel and Clarissa, retitled A School for Fathers achieved considerable success outside the capital, and particularly in Ireland.
Following Bickerstaff's disgrace, Dibdin's next few works found little acceptance, as audiences assumed the texts were by his shamed colleague. He wrote a number of short 'dialogue operas', which lasted approximately 15 minutes each, tending to write the libretti as well as composing the music. He had two more true successes in his career - The Waterman (1774) and The Quaker (1775). Personal troubles then caused him to emulate Bickerstaff in fleeing to France to escape imprisonment for his debts. A few years later, he returned to England and attempted careers as a publisher, theatrical producer, prose-writer and performer. His chief income came from writing songs about contemporary events, which achieved a measure of popularity. By the time of his death, he had written thousands of songs, most of them of dubious quality.
Isaac Bickerstaff had been a military man before his theatrical career, making good use of this background in his first libretto, Thomas and Sally (1760). His other works were many and varied, and are said to have influenced Sheridan. The comic operas written by Bickerstaff - sometimes with original music by Charles Dibdin or others, sometimes with a pasticcio score assembled from European opera - are also considered to be a forerunner of the modern musical comedy, being an evolutionary step somewhere between ballad operas such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and the Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Following its premiere production in 1769, The Ephesian Matron was performed again at Ranelagh on a few occasions and then made infrequent appearances as an after-piece5 on the regular London stage during the next decade or so.
The opera then received only sporadic performances over the next two centuries, with a short spate of productions in the 1920s and 1930s which led to a BBC radio broadcast. Interest in the piece was recently revived following performances by Opera Restor'd, a production company dedicated to the performance and recording of unknown operas, in the 1990s. The company recorded it, along with two shorter pieces by Dibdin, for Hyperion Records, and the humour of the piece was praised by critics. The years following this production have seen a number of other revivals, including performances in 2002 by Gads Hill Theater Company, and in 2003 by the University of Kent Summer Opera6. It is unlikely that The Ephesian Matron will ever become a regular part of the operatic repertoire, but the existence of a recording certainly ensures that it will receive more performances than it otherwise would.