Grand opera in five acts
Libretto by W. Barclay Squire after Moore
Sung in English with English surtitles
First performance 2 June 1881, Hoftheater, Hannover
Very few professional performances have been given of Charles Villiers Stanford’s operas in the last century, and many other parts of his musical outlook remain still neglected as well. Mostly remembered these days for his late-Victorian church music – in particular, those vigorous settings of the Anglican liturgy's morning and evening services – the Anglo-Irish composer enjoyed a full and varied career. Indeed, there is much more to the Dublin-born Stanford (1852–1924) than most modern listeners realise, and in particular, his symphonies, concertos and Irish Rhapsodies are a joy to discover.
More surprisingly, Stanford was also a prolific opera composer, much more interested in the lyric stage than most of his contemporaries in Britain (his career was largely divided between Cambridge and London). But recognising the hopelessness of pursuing an operatic career at home, he turned to Germany – he had studied with Reinecke in Leipzig in the 1870s – and it was in Hanover that the first of his ten operas, The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, was premiered in 1881. Given there as Der verschleierte Prophet, it had been translated again as Il profeta velato by the time it reached Covent Garden.
There is another Irish connection here: the opera is based on Thomas Moore's popular romance Lalla Rookh. Among those who made musical settings before Stanford were Spontini, Félicien David, Anton Rubinstein and – most famous of all – Schumann, in what became his Das Paradies und die Peri. Cosmopolitan in its pre-Wagnerian manner, the work is attractive, despite sometimes coming under suspicion for its shades of Meyerbeer. But it was well received in its day, with the Musical Times of 1 March 1881 saying of Stanford, ‘He has come before the world in a new light, as the composer of a grand opera, a work of greater importance than has hitherto appeared from his pen.’