Engelbert Humperdinck – Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty)

Fairy-tale opera in a prelude and three acts.
Libretto by Elisabeth Ebeling and Bertha Lehrmann-Filhés.
First performed in Frankfurt am Main on 12 November 1902.

Prelude
The King and Queen have long wanted a daughter, and now that they have one, they have arranged her name-day.  The queen is worried about the baby girl’s future, but the king reassures her that nothing can go wrong – he has invited twelve fairies to the celebrations, and with their blessing, the child will be safe.  He has however, not invited one particular fairy, the wicked fairy Dämonia, and when the queen realises this, her worries increase because she is frightened that Dämonia will have her revenge.  The king, however, summons all the guests to the feast and the festivities begin with Rosa, the fairy queen, giving the first gift to the baby: she gives her own name to the child.  One by one, the other fairies add their gifts.  But before they have finished, Dämonia appears and puts a curse in the child, saying that before fifteen years have passed she will prick her finger on a spindle and die.  There is general horror, but the twelfth fairy, Morphina, still has a gift to give: she commutes the curse, saying that Rose will not die, but go into a deep sleep.  She can be saved by a brave prince who can produce her ancestral ring, but if this does not happen within a hundred years, she will die anyway.  All this is poor consolation, and the king immediately orders the destruction of all the spindles in the land.

Act 1
Scene 1: Fifteen years later
Princess Röschen’s fifteenth birthday and betrothal celebrations involving her family’s ancestral rings are imminent and she is still awake – so far so good.  As the celebrations approach, the king and queen relax their careful watch over their daughter and allow her to spend some time alone in the castle grounds.  Röschen wants to see something of the countryside which has so far been forbidden to her, so she climbs up the castle tower to get a good view.  In the tower, she meets an old woman sitting at a loom: although she knows that spindles are dangerous, no-one has told her why, and when the old woman invited her to turn the spinning wheel herself, Röschen is happy to have a go.  Immediately, she pricks her finger and falls into a deep sleep, as does everyone else.

Scene 2: A hundred years later
Young Prince Reinhold has a regular dream about a rose, and when the wise old curator of the ancestral portrait gallery shows him a painting of Princess Röschen, he is overcome by her beauty and not only links her with the rose of his dreams, but decides he is the one who is destined to free her.  The curator tells him that the curse on the Princess is about to run out, and that if she is not freed from it within three days, she will indeed die.  He then warns the prince about Dämonia’s magic powers, and then adds a comment about the princess’s lost rings, without which she cannot be saved.  Reinhold rushes off in his quest.

But the prince cannot find the rings and he is exhausted by all the searching.  Dämonia appears and, without revealing her identity, rouses him with a kiss.  He asks her about the rings, but instead of answering him, she sends him up to the sky, where he can hold council with the sun, the moon and the stars.  He does this and after surviving the dance of the spheres, he asks the celestial bodies about the rings.  The sun and the moon can give him no information, but the stars offer him a riddle: the stars keep watch over everything on the earth, but they have not seen the rings.  Encouraged by this new information, the prince returns to the earth.

Act 3
A helper arrives in the form of Quicksilver, who offers to lead Reinhold to the princess’s castle.  The prince, following the clue from the stars, has found the rings in the underground mines run by dwarves and is now keen to complete the mission.  But Dämonia reappears and tries to seduce Reinhold with declarations of love: he is tempted, but the rings remind him of Röschen’s portrait and he is able to resist.  Dämonia furiously whips up a frost which freezes Quicksilver solid.  But the sun helps out by sending warm beams, and with Quicksilver thawed out, the Prince resumes his journey to the castle.

Once they reach the princess’s resting place, the prince and Quicksilver set about hacking their way through the barrier of thorns which protects her.  Dämonia turns up again, and she and Reinhold start a fight to the death.  Reinhold wins, and with Dämonia’s death the thorn barrier disappears.  The prince quickly finds the princess and with a tender kiss he releases her from the curse.  All the occupants of the castle begin to awaken as Röschen gazes at her rescuer.  The fairy queen, Rosa, appears and explains everything, including the fact that Reinhold is the grandson of the princess’s original intended husband – so that make everything OK.  The Prince and Princess fall into one another’s arms.

 –ooOoo–

Related OperaStory articles can be found on 

  • Engelbert Humperdinck’s life and operas
  • The plots of other operas by Humperdinck
  • Other fairy-tale operas 

©  Roger Witts 2011

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