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Some operas are based on plays. For example, Shakespeare's Othello was the source for Rossini's Otello (1816) and Verdi's Otello (1887). Romeo and Juliet inspired Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette (1839) and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (1867). Verdi's Falstaff (1893) was based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and scenes from Henry IV, parts 1 and 2. Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet (1868) is rather less well known.

Authors of opera libretti are usually not well known outside the realm of opera. One exception was W. H. Auden, who wrote the libretto for Benjamin Britten's Paul Bunyan (1941) and co-authored the libretto for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1947).

However, have any Western opera libretti ever successfully transitioned from the opera to the theatre stage? By "successfully" I mean that there should have been at least two independent productions of the resulting play[1] (which would be a low bar for an "ordinary" play). I am also using the term "transition" rather loosely here; if any libretto transitioned to the stage, I assume there was some form of adaptation (beyond leaving out the music and singing) rather than simply a staging of the libretto. If yes, what was the first one?

[1] This excludes musicals.

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  • @PeterShor Films don't count for this specific question. Perhaps it would make a valid other question. (But film novelizations are not rare, so the question about a transition from film to theatre may be too obvious.)
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 5, 2021 at 23:27
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    Václav Havel's Žebrácká opera (1975) is a music-free adaptation of The Beggar's Opera (1728). Dec 5, 2021 at 23:30
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    @GarethRees That looks like a valid answer. (Of course, there may be older examples.)
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 5, 2021 at 23:32
  • @Tsundoku: I meant cases where a libretto for an opera has been turned into a script for a (non-musical) film.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 6, 2021 at 0:38
  • @PeterShor I was specifically thinking of plays performed in a theatre, not films. I have also considered asking a question about the earliest novelisation of a film, but it appears that Wikipedia already has an article about that.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 6, 2021 at 14:23

1 Answer 1

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While it only partially fits, one example from the Russian theatre is Yakov Knyazhnin’s tragedy Dido (1769). The commentary to the book says that it was a very successful play influenced by Jean-Jacques Lefranc de Pompignan’s play Didon and Pietro Metastasio’s Didone abbandonata (an opera libretto). An avid adapter, Knyazhnin later reworked La clemenza di Tito into the first Russian musical tragedy.

It seems that everybody in 18th century Europe was adapting Metastasio. From Memoirs of Carlo Goldoni:

As the operas of Metastasio were then represented everywhere even without music, I put the airs into recitative; I endeavored as well as I could to approximate the style of that charming author; and I made choice of Didone and Siroe for our representation.

The thesis Metastasio as dramatist: the example of Demetrius by Patrizia Putativo examines the dramatic version of Demetrius (Demetrio) translated by Friedrich Wilhelm Weiskern.

In German-speaking territory, Metastasio's works were first published as librettos usually in both Italian and German and thereafter appeared as dramatic works in German.

  • This is indeed an adaptation of a libretto:

The dramatic works, which were adapted from their corresponding librettos, as is the case here for Demetrius[…]

  • It was popular. The thesis mentions Weiskern’s translation being used in 1748 Vienna and 1768 Cologne performances.

The statistical review of performance records of Demetrius as opera and as a dramatic piece clearly attests to the enormous success of this work in Vienna as both drama and opera.

By examining the German Viennese performances of Demetrius as a dramatic work, one can conclude that there were at least four productions by Weiskern[...]

  • It wasn’t just music-free. The thesis describes changes in the division of scenes, roles, speeches, and so on:

The division of scelles in the original is the same as Weiskern' s except for act three, scenes seven and eight.

Two role changes are present in Weiskern's Demetrius translation.

Not only are portions of speech from the Italian omitted in Weiskern's translation, but very often segments of speech are added as weIl.

I conclude that this adaptation satisfies the criteria listed in the question.

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