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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Full Moon in March (1977)
Text Writer
Libretto by the composer after the play by W. B. Yeats.
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Opera and Music Theatre
Sub Category
Chamber Opera
Year Composed
33 Minutes
Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, Baritone, Tenor
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
John Harbison Full Moon in March (1977)
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Composer Note:
In Yeats’ astrological-metaphysical system, the full moon has a special place in Phase 15, a phase of complete and unexplainable beauty where opposites unite. March represents the ending of the cycle and the creation of a new one. The characters in the drama meet at a moment of mythic truth remote from motivation or even need to explain.

As in an earlier opera, Winter’s Tale, the intent is to make an emblematic ritual-opera which seeks to circumvent or ignore certain realistic conventions without sacrificing the bedrock operatic essentials, melody and drama.

Yeats knew well that music was a willful force when combined with his poetry: “The orchestra brings more elaborate music and I have gone over to the enemy. I say to the musician: ‘Lose my words in patterns of sound as the name of God is lost in Arabian arabesques. They are a secret between the singers, myself, yourself. The plain fable, plain prose of the dialogue. Ninette de Valois’ dance are there for the audience. They can find my works in the book if they are curious, but we will not thrust our secret upon them.’ ”

— John Harbison

Cast List:
   THE QUEEN: Mezzo-Soprano
   THE SWINEHERD: Baritone

Vocal Score

  • Ensemble
    Boston Modern Orchestra Project
    Gil Rose
When the humble shepherd comes a-calling on the icy princess, fairytale convention dictates that the ardour of his honest love melt her frozen heart, and a wedding ensue. But the bleak storyline of John Harbison's chamber opera Full Moon in March, inspired by Yeats's play (not surprisingly, rarely performed) and staged for the fourth London Festival of American Music, denies the redemptive happy ending. Harbison's ambitious swineherd is a filthy, muscular creep, the princess he woos a spiteful despot. In their hateful world are only two malign attendants and the princess's alter ego, a lascivious dancer. So with not a glimpse of loveliness on stage, it rests with the music to reveal beauty in this hostile landscape. And it is there, in the arching, aching lines of Jeremy Huw Williams's meatily sung Swineherd, reminiscent of Britten's Peter Grimes, longing poisoned by lechery proving lethal. Those so squeamish they hide behind the sofa when George Osborne comes on screen might recoil at the climactic pas de deux with the severed head of the Swineherd, and fatal kiss on lifeless lips. But Gwen Elfyn Jones's low dance to the death was a mesmerising spectacle, egged on by Harbison's relentless score and dark orchestration, the insistent bass clarinet and Barnaby Archer's percussion presaging a terrible end. Matthew Deeley's design for Carmen Jakobi's production echoed the narrative's cool oriental clarity as well as the characters' commedia singularity.
Claudia Pritchard , The Independent,28/10/2012
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