List of operas set in the Crusades

The Lombards departing for the First Crusade from I Lombardi alla prima crociata by Tommaso Grossi. Grossi's epic poem formed the basis for Verdi's opera I Lombardi alla prima crociata.

Operas set against the background of the medieval Crusades can be found in the earliest examples of the art form and continue to be written into the 21st century. Many of the works listed here contain characters and plots based on real or legendary figures of the time such as Tancred, Prince of Galilee, Godfrey of Bouillon or Jaufre Rudel. The majority are set, at least in part, in the Holy Land and the surrounding region and deal with the conflicts between the Christians and Muslims. Others, such as Donizetti's Gabriella di Vergy, deal with the misadventures of knights returning from the Crusades. In the case of Gabriella di Vergy, Raoul de Coucy returns from the Third Crusade to find that his beloved Gabriella has married Lord Fayel. Following a duel, Fayel cuts out the heart of the unfortunate Raoul and presents it in an urn to Gabriella.[1] The only comedy in the list, Rossini's Le comte Ory, recounts the attempts by Ory and his friends to seduce the Countess of Formoutiers and the women of her household while their men are away at the Crusades. Ory's ploy of dressing up as nuns to gain access to the women is foiled when the Crusaders return. Many of the libretti for the operas listed are based either directly or indirectly on Torquato Tasso's epic poem, La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), or on Voltaire's tragic play, Zaïre.

Literary sources

Torquato Tasso, the author of La Gerusalemme liberata. His tortured life was itself the subject of an opera – Donizetti's Torquato Tasso

Torquato Tasso's 1581 epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata and Voltaire's 1732 play, Zaïre were the sources for the majority of operas in this list and are described in more detail below. Other literary works which have served as the basis for operas on the Crusades include: Niccolò Forteguerri's 1735 mock epic poem, Il Ricciardetto; Dormont De Belloy's 1777 play, Gabrielle de Vergy;[2] Jean-Antoine-Marie Monperlier's 1813 play Les Chevaliers de Malte (The Knights of Malta); August von Kotzebue's 1820 play Die Kreuzfahrer (The Crusaders); Sir Walter Scott's 1825 novel, The Talisman; and Tommaso Grossi's 1826 epic poem I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards in the First Crusade).

Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata

At least one hundred operas have been inspired by Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered).[3] He began writing it while still a schoolboy and finished it in 1575 when he was thirty. The first complete editions were published in Parma and Ferrara in 1581. The main characters are a mixture of historical figures and ones invented by Tasso.[4] Of the poem's main characters below, the invented Rinaldo and Armida, are the most frequent operatic characters. Their love story, primarily recounted in Canto XVI, is one of the most famous episodes in La Gerusalemme liberata and has alone served as the theme for over fifty operas[5] as well as many paintings.[6] Apart from Tancredi, the historically based characters tend to have relatively minor roles in operas based on the poem.

Goffredo is Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the military leaders of the First Crusade and later ruler of Jerusalem. (The original title of La Gerusalemme liberata was Il Goffredo.)

Pietro l'eremita is Peter the Hermit, the spiritual leader of The People's Crusade.

Tancredi is Tancred, Prince of Galilee, a Norman knight who became the ruler of Galilee and Antioch. He and Gaston IV of Béarn claimed to be the first Crusaders to enter Jerusalem when the city fell on 15 July 1099. In the poem, Tancredi falls in love with Clorinda and in turn is loved by both Clorinda and Erminia.[7]

Rinaldo falls under Armida's spell in a painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, one of his many works inspired by their story.

Rinaldo (fictional) is a valiant Christian knight. In the story, he is an ancestor of the House of Este, a compliment paid to Tasso's patron Alfonso II d'Este the Duke of Ferrara. Rinaldo shares the name (but not the identity) of an earlier Christian knight, Rinaldo di Montalbano who was a character in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. After escaping Armida's enchantment, he seeks penance on the Mount of Olives for having abandoned his Christian duty for love and participates in the final assault on Jerusalem.

Armida (fictional) is a beautiful highborn woman from Damascus and a sorceress. Her grandfather (Idraote), the ruler of the city was also a sorcerer. She uses her beauty and her magic to enchant the Christian knights and sow discord amongst them. After spiriting Rinaldo away to her magic isle, they fall in love. When Rinaldo comes to his senses and leaves her to return to battle, she becomes suicidal. Her character has elements of both Homer's Circe and Ariosto's Alcina.

Erminia (fictional) is the daughter of the Muslim King of Antioch (Cassano) who was killed by the Crusaders when they conquered the city. Tancredi nevertheless treats her with honour and protects her, causing Erminia to fall in love with him. When Tancredi is wounded in battle and on the verge of death, she abandons her people and comes over to the Christian side, curing him with special herbs.

Clorinda (fictional) is a warrior-princess, fighting on the side of the Muslims. Unbeknownst to her, she is actually the daughter of the Christian King of Ethiopia. She was born white, an extraordinary fact attributed to her having been conceived beneath a painting of Saint George. Fearing that the dark-skinned King would not believe this explanation, Clorinda's mother had the child taken to Egypt by her servant (Arsete), where she was raised a Muslim. Clorinda and Tancredi fall in love, but ultimately meet in battle during the final assault on Jerusalem, although they don't recognize each other beneath their armour. Clorinda is killed by Tancredi, and dying in his arms asks him to baptize her.

Sofronia and Olindo (fictional) are young Christian lovers living in Jerusalem before its fall to the Crusaders. When the Muslim ruler of the city, Aladino, orders a persecution the Christians, they are sent for execution. Clorinda takes pity on them and rescues them as they are about to be burnt at the stake.

Argante (fictional) is a hot-headed Saracen warrior and an emissary of the King of Egypt and King Aladino. He is eventually slain by Tancredi.

Ismene (fictional) is a powerful sorcerer in the service of King Aladino. At one point Ismene convinces Aladino to steal an icon of the Virgin Mary and hang it in a mosque, where he can cast a spell on it.

Voltaire's Zaïre

Voltaire, the author of Zaïre. In addition to his many other plays which have inspired opera librettists, Voltaire also wrote several libretti himself, most notably that for Rameau's Le temple de la Gloire

Voltaire's Zaïre (The Tragedy of Zara) was given its first public performance on 13 August 1732 by the Comédie française at the Théâtre de la rue des Fossés Saint-Germain. It was a great success with the Paris audiences and marked a turning away from tragedies caused by a fatal flaw in the protagonist's character to ones based on pathos. The tragic fate of its heroine is caused not through any fault of her own, but by the jealousy of her lover and the intolerance of her fellow Christians.[8] Voltaire ostensibly set the play in the "Epoch of Saint Louis". However, the plot and characters are largely fiction. The historical characters alluded to, members of the Lusignan and Châtillon families, were related to events of the Crusades but not alive at the time of Louis IX.[9] The characters' names in the original French are:

  • Orosmane, (Osman) the Sultan of Jerusalem
  • Zaïre, (Zara) a Christian slave kidnapped as a baby when Cesarea was sacked by the Muslim armies and the lover of Orosamane
  • Nérestan, a French knight, and unbeknownst to Zaïre, her brother
  • Lusignan, a descendant of the Christian princes of Jerusalem, now a prisoner of the Sultan and, unbeknownst to Zaïre, her father
  • Fatime, (Fatima) a slave girl and Zaïre's friend
  • Châtillon, a French knight and comrade of Nérestan
  • Corasmin and Mélédor, officers of the Sultan
  • Un esclave, an unnamed slave

The play's melodramatic plot and a setting that appealed to the orientalism in vogue in late-18th- and early-19th-century Europe made it popular with opera composers. Zaïre has been the inspiration for at least thirteen operas.[10] One of the earliest operatic adaptations was Peter Winter's Zaire which premiered in 1805 at The King's Theatre in London with the famous Italian contralto, Giuseppina Grassini, in the title role.[11] Bellini's 1829 Zaira, also based on the play, was expressly written for the inauguration of the Teatro Regio di Parma but was a failure on the opening night and has been rarely performed since then.[12] Johann Andreas Schachtner's libretto for Mozart's unfinished opera Zaïde, was based largely on a 1778 singspiel, The Seraglio, or The Unexpected Reunion of Father, Daughter and Son in Slavery. However, both appear to have been significantly influenced by the plot and themes of Zaïre which had been performed in Salzburg as late as 1777.[13]

List of operas

Clorinda dying in Tancredi's arms, from a 1589 edition of Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata

The earliest work on this list, Rinaldo innamorato by Francesca Caccini, dates from 1623 when opera was still in its infancy and performed only in private palaces or court theatres. During this period operas co-existed with other forms of music drama which featured virtuoso singing – the intermedio (a short spectacle performed between the acts of a play with its own story-line) and the madrigale concertato (literally "concerted madrigal", a dramatic composition for voices and instruments, often performed semi-staged). Several works in those genres were also based on Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata, including:

The operas below are listed in chronological order by the date of their first performance. Where this is unavailable, or the opera premiered many years after the composer's death, the date of composition is given.[18]

17th-century operas

  • Rinaldo innamorato (1623, Florence)[19] composed by Francesca Caccini; libretto after Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata (music lost)
  • Erminia sul Giordano (1633, Rome) composed by Michelangelo Rossi; libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi, after Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata
  • L'Armida (1639, Venice) composed by Benedetto Ferrari; libretto by Benedetto Ferrari, after Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata
  • L'Amore trionfante dello sdegno (1641, Ferrara) composed by Marco Marazzoli; libretto after Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata
  • Armide (1686, Paris) composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully; libretto by Philippe Quinault, after Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata
  • La Gerusalemme liberata (1687, Venice) composed by Carlo Pallavicino; libretto by Vincenzo Grimani and Girolamo Frisari, after Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata
  • Gli avvenimenti di Erminia e di Clorinda (1693, Venice) composed by Carlo Francesco Pollarolo; libretto by Giulio Cesare Corradi, after Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata (music lost)
  • Gli amori e incanti di Rinaldo con Armida (1694, Rovigo) composed by Teofilo Orgiani; libretto by Giralomo Colatelli, after Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata (music lost)[20]

18th-century operas

Henriette Méric-Lalande who created the title role in Bellini's Zaira and Palmide in Meyerbeer's Il crociato in Egitto
  • Sofronia ed Olindo (1793, Naples) composed by Gaetano Andreozzi; libretto by Carlo Sernicola, after Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata
  • Zaira (1797, Venice) composed by Sebastiano Nasolini; libretto by Mattia Butturini, after Voltaire's Zaïre

19th-century operas

20th-century operas

21st-century operas



  1. ^ The real Raoul de Coucy is believed to have died in the Siege of Acre
  2. ^ De Belloy's play derives in turn from a series of medieval legends, most notably the 13th-century Roman du châtelan de Courcy et de la dame de Fayel by Jakemon Sakesep and has no basis in historical fact.
  3. ^ Siberry (2003) p. 288
  4. ^ The source for the character descriptions is Tasso (2000)
  5. ^ Jellinek (1994) p. 354
  6. ^ See for example, Boucher's Renaud et Armide, Bellucci's Rinaldo e Armida, Poussin's Renaud et Armide, Conca's Rinaldo e Armida, Fragonard's Rinaldo in the Garden of Armida, and multiple treatments of the subject by Tiepolo
  7. ^ Note that this is not the same person as the title character in Rossini's 1813 opera Tancredi. Rossini's opera is based on Voltaire's 1759 play, Tancrède, which is set in Syracuse during the years leading up to the First Crusade. See Jellinek (1994) p. 61
  8. ^ For more on the parallels drawn between sexual jealousy and religious fanaticism in the play, see Weber (2004)
  9. ^ Pike (1936) pp. 436–439
  10. ^ Carlson (1998) p. 44
  11. ^ Stafford (1830) p. 330
  12. ^ Casaglia (2005)
  13. ^ Gutman (2001) p. 487
  14. ^ Hill (1997) pp. 258–260
  15. ^ Whenham pp. 135–136
  16. ^ Smither (1977) p. 158
  17. ^ Rolland (1915/1977) p. 67
  18. ^ The chief source for the 17th- and early-18th-century operas is the Nordisk Netværk For Tidlig Musikdramatik, supplemented by Selfridge-Field (2007) and Sonneck and Schatz (1914). Unless indicated otherwise, the source for the later operas is Casaglia.
  19. ^ Badolato (2007) pp. 29–30 (Note 60)
  20. ^ The work was later performed under variations of this title (1698, Treviso and Udine) as well under the title L'onor al cimento (1702/3, Venice). See Selfridge-Field (2007) p. 255
  21. ^ Selfridge-Field (2007) p. 390
  22. ^ Osborne (2007) pp. 271–272
  23. ^ London's distaste for staged biblical operas at the time, led to the change of plot. For more on the differences between Pietro l'eremita and Mosè in Egitto and its critical reception, see Siberry (2003) pp. 289–290
  24. ^ Le Tellier (2006) p. 88
  25. ^ Holden (2001) p. 227
  26. ^ Osborne (2007) pp. 106–107
  27. ^ Thicknesse (28 October 2003)
  28. ^ Budden (1992) p. 114
  29. ^ Grove (1900) p. 660
  30. ^ Hubbard and Krehbiel (2004) p. 414
  31. ^ Partly translated and adapted from Solera's libretto for Verdi's I Lombardi alla prima crociata. See Budden (1992) p. 135
  32. ^ Aroldo was a reworking and expansion of Verdi and Piave's 1850 Stiffelio. Both share the plot of a man returning from a long journey to find that his wife has been unfaithful. The mid-19th-century Protestant minister, Stiffelio, became Aroldo (Harold), an English knight returning from the Crusades. See Holden (2001) pp. 997–998
  33. ^ Charlton (2003) p. 381.
  34. ^ *Teasdale (1938) p. 221
  35. ^ Iitti (2002) pp. 9–14
  36. ^ Jeffries (1 December 2005)
  37. ^ The world premiere of The Children's Crusade took place on 5 June 2009 during Toronto's Luminato Festival. See Sound Streams, who co-commissioned the opera with the Luminato Festival.


External links

  • La Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato Tasso in the original Italian (full text)
  • Jerusalem Delivered an English translation by Edward Fairfax (edited by Henry Morley) of Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata, The Colonial Press, 1901 (full text)
  • Zaïre by Voltaire in the original French (full text)
  • Zara: A Tragedy, an English translation and adaptation by Aaron Hill of Voltaire's Zaïre, John Bell, 1797 (full text)

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