2008 – The Song of Rhiannon – ABOUT

The Song of Rhiannon

Commissioned by W11 Opera in 2008

Synopsis: Brutally punished for jilting Gwawl and marrying her true love, the beautiful widowed Rhiannon believes she is at last free from his jealousy. But at the ceremony of her second marriage to the noble Manawydan, a dark mist envelops the court and empties it of human life. Rhiannon has reawakened Gwawl’s curse and he is determined to exact his revenge.

Inspired by The Mabinogion, the jewel of Welsh Mediaeval literature, The Song of Rhiannon is an enthralling, mystical tale of heroes, wizards, enchantments and shape shifting creatures. Enter the fantastical and bizarre landscape of W11 Opera’s 29th commission, to discover whether resourcefulness and patience can overcome the ancient power of magic…

Composer Mark Bowden
Librettist Helen Cooper
Music Director Philip Colman
Soloists Rhiannon, Manawydan, Pryderi, Cigfa, Pwyll, LLwyd, Rhiannon’s Birds, Gwawl, Gwenaby, The Priest, Bryn, Morgan, Bedwin, Dylan, Gwyn, Howel, Mabon
Groups The Dead, the Warriors, Courtiers, Flowers, Sculpted Classical Figures, Gargoyles, Blades of Wheat, Grey and Bespeckled Mice, Villagers, Saddlemakers, Shoemakers, Shieldmakers, Customers  
Orchestra Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Harp, Percussion  

Notes on Production: A romantic story of thwarted love in the mythical setting of pre-medieval Welsh mountains, THE SONG OF RHIANNON would particularly suit a cast which included some experienced singers, including several male broken voices, who would carry the action competently. Some of the character groups are suited to younger children (e.g. Mice, Blades of Wheat) and others for mixed age groups.

The musical style is complex, sometimes challenging but rewarding to learn with unexpected and beautiful harmonies in the part-singing.

Staging may be as simple or as complex as required. Several groups are required on stage for a short time only, so some groups doubling would be possible.

Age range 9-18, with scope for adult singers to take principal parts.

Running time: 60 minutes.

Music and video

Visit theVideo and Audio pages for clips from this production.


Rhiannon and all the land are cursed for her rejection of the love of Gwawl: only through the power of love and friendship can the curse be lifted.

Prologue – In a stark Welsh landscape and a time of ancient gods, Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, is out hunting with his companions, Bryn and Morgan. He sees a mysterious woman riding a white horse. She vanishes each time she is pursued but finally stops for Pwyll, who is instantly captivated by her beauty. He discovers she is Rhiannon and is to be married against her will the next day to Gwawl. She reveals that she loves Pwyll and will elope with him if he returns her love. They arrange to meet the next day and, as Rhiannon vanishes, her ever–present Birds, constant reminders of her sorrows and trials, warn of Gwawl’s revenge.

Scene 1 – 25 years later, on a corpse–strewn battlefield, warriors – BedwinDylanGwynHywell and Mabon – sing of their victory over the DeadManawydan, their chieftain, reflects on the bitterness of war. Pryderi, son of Rhiannonand the long–deceased Pwyll, offers Manawydan his mother’s hand in marriage and with it the Court of Arberth and seven cantrefs (or divisions) of Dyfed.

Scene 2 – In the Court of Arberth, FlowersGargoyles and Sculpted Classical Figures sing of their joy in the prospective union of Rhiannon and Manawydan. The Courtiers and Villagers arrive to welcome the bride and groom. The Priest conducts the wedding ceremony. As the couple are about to leave, there is a peal of thunder, the wedding guests mysteriously disappear and the Court of Arberth transforms into a desert. As Pryderi and Manawydan depart to see what has happened, Rhiannon remains with CigfaPryderi’s wife. She tells her of the curse she was put under years earlier by Gwawl, for humiliating him. When the men return, the four resolve to stand by each other whatever may befall them.

Scene 3 – The four are travelling on the road to Lloegyr (England). Tired and hungry, they resolve to use their skills to earn money to support themselves.

Scene 4 – In a marketplace, SaddlemakersShoemakers and Shieldmakers hawk their wares to groups ofCustomersGwawl arrives, accompanied by the sorcerer Llwyd and his wife Gwenaby, who agree to help him destroy his enemies by planting seeds of envy and greed. Llwyd causes disarray by promoting Pryderi’s stall with its beautiful blue –pommelled saddles, causing the rival Stallholders to turn on him and his companions. Rhiannonrealises that Gwawl is behind this friction and persuades the reluctant Pryderi to return to Arberth, thwarting Llwyd’s plan.

Scene 5 – A White Boar appears then vanishes. Rhiannon and Pryderi stalk it and follow it into a mound of earth. Inside is a golden bowl with chains leading up to heaven. As they reach out to touch it, their hands stick to it and they can neither pull away nor cry out. Gwawl enslaves them with a gate hammer (knocker) and an ass’s collar.

Scene 6 – Having searched in vain for Pryderi and RhiannonCigfa finally tells Manawydan of the curse on Rhiannonand they resolve to try and lift it.

Scene 7 – In the Court of Arberth, the FlowersGargoylesSculpted Classical Figures and Birds bewail the blight on the land. Manawydan and Cigfa decide to protect the one last Field of Wheat which survives the destruction.

Scene 8 – Hiding in the small Field of WheatManawydan and Cigfa see a host of Grey and Bespeckled Mice who fall on each Blade of Wheat and demolish it. The Mice all escape their clutches, with the exception of one Fat Grey Mouse.

Scene 9 – Manawydan is determined to hang the Fat Grey Mouse despite Cigfa’s intercessions. A Bishop arrives and bargains for its release. In despair he asks Manawydan to name his price and reveals himself as Llwyd and the mouse as the pregnant Gwenaby. The courtyard, with its FlowersGargoyles and Sculpted Classical Figures, comes back to life and fills with VillagersCourtiers, the Warriors and the Priest. Manawydan demands the release ofRhiannon and Pryderi and the lifting of Gwawl’s curse. Gwawl enters, dragging Pryderi and Rhiannon behind him.Llwyd beseeches Gwawl to release them so that he can be reunited with his wife GwenabyGwawl agrees and walks away with dignity as the whole Court sings of friendship, love and happiness.


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