The Duchess of Padua


A Gothic drama of revenge, passion and murder 

in a fresh and crunchy, bite-sized opera

"Personally I like comedy to be intensely modern, and like my tragedy…. to be remote". (Wilde) 

In this early play by Wilde, the beauty of his verse mattered more than the realistic portrayal of character and the credibility of the drama. At times melodramatic, at times sentimental, with everything in between, this adaptation faithfully follows the twists and turns of Wilde's extraordinary plot and reveals it to be more modern than it seems. Designed to make a big impact in small spaces this is a grand, ‘Italian-style’ opera with arias, ensembles, a love-duet, and a death scene but condensed for just four voices and piano duet.

Duration: about 80 minutes (plus interval)

The Duchess of Padua is an early play by Wilde written in Paris in 1883. A drama of revenge, passion and murder in the Gothic style, it is related to Shakespearean tragedy and Shelley’s The Cenci. "Personally I like comedy to be intensely modern, and like my tragedy…. to be remote", Wilde wrote in 1894. It was an attempt to bring to the stage the sensibilities of the aesthetic movement: the beauty of the dialogue mattered more than the realistic portrayal of character and the credibility of the drama. Even so, the Duchess herself is a fully drawn Victorian contemporary, a feisty feminist trapped in a failed marriage to the boorish Duke - a victim of coercive control - and the misfortune to fall for a high-minded house-guest; beyond the elevated blank verse are indeed modern ideas “under an antique form.” This adaptation of The Duchess of Padua turns it into a four-act ‘Italian-style’ opera (with arias, ensembles, a love duet and a death scene) for four voices accompanied by piano duet. As if to emphasise the play’s musicality, the cast members also step outside their roles and form a narrative chorus which sets the scene or comments on the action.

(Act One) The elderly Count Moranzone tells young Guido Ferranti, recently arrived in Padua, that his noble father, whom the son never knew, was betrayed by the Duke of Padua and executed. He arranges for Guido to serve the Duke so that he can exact revenge, but he insists this be done only when Moranzone judges the time to be right, at which point Guido will receive his father’s dagger to carry out the deed. When the Duke appears, it soon becomes apparent that he is as evil as he ever was. As he leaves for the cathedral, the Duchess passes by and catches sight of Guido. 

(Act Two) The Duke is revealed as a cruel husband to the beautiful young Duchess, with whom Guido now finds himself in love. The unhappy Duchess is only too ready to return his love; but when Moranzone brings the dagger and reminds Guido of his duty to avenge his father; feeling himself unworthy, he abandons her and resolves to murder the Duke that night. 

(Act Three) On further reflection he decides not to kill but to steal the moral high ground by laying the dagger on the sleeping Duke who, on waking, would lay himself at Guido’s mercy. Moranzone is not impressed by this noble scheme. Then, as Guido approaches the Duke’s bedchamber, the Duchess comes out of it: desperate, she was about to kill herself - but murdered the Duke instead. Guido is horrified that the woman he idolised is capable of such a thing and casts her off a second time. Jilted again, the Duchess covers Guido in the Duke’s blood and summons the guards: “Here is the man who slew my lord”, she cries. 

(Act Four) Incarcerated in a dreadful dungeon, Guido is provided with poison in preference to dying on the scaffold. He sleeps. The Duchess visits him; to ease her conscience and save the man she truly loves, she has arranged for his escape and, believing that Guido doesn't return her feelings, now drinks the poison to die in his place. When he awakes, however, he confesses his love and, as the executioners approach, takes the Duchess’ dagger and dies in her arms, while she succumbs to the poison.


GUIDO FERRANTI, a young person from Perugia (mezzo-soprano - A)

COUNT MORANZONE, an elderly courtier (bass - B) 

DUKE OF PADUA (tenor - T)

BEATRICE, DUCHESS OF PADUA, his young wife (soprano - S)

Place: Padua

Time: The latter half of the Sixteenth Century

Highlights from Wilde’s text:


By night thou shalt creep into his chamber;

see that thou wake him, tell him of what blood thou art,

Sprung from what father, and for what revenge,

Then bid him pray for mercy.

Vengeance, be thou my comrade, sit by my side, ride to the chase with me, 

sing me sad songs, when I am weary make jest for me,

And when I dream, whisper into my ear the dreadful secret of a father’s murder—


In Padua we think that honesty is ostentatious, so

It is not of the fashion. Guido, be not honest.

See thou hast enemies, else will the world think little of thee:

It is its test of power. See thou show’st a smiling mask of friendship to all men,

Until thou hast them safely in thy grip, then thou canst crush them.


Men when they woo us call us pretty children:

We are their chattels, and their common slaves,

Less dear than the hound that licks their hand,

Less fondled than the hawk upon their wrist.

Woo, did I say? bought rather, sold and bartered,

Our bodies as merchandise.

It is the general lot of women,

Each miserably mated to some man,

To wreck her life upon his selfishness:

That it is general makes it not less bitter.

There is many a woman here in Padua,

Some workman’s wife, or artisan’s,

Whose husband spends his wages in a revel,

And reeling home late, finds his wife by a fireless hearth

with a child who cries for hunger,

And then beats his wife because

The child is hungry, and the fire black.

Yet the wife loves him! and will rise next day

And try to smile, and be glad

If he does not beat her a second time: that is how women love.

When men love women they give but little of their lives,

But women when they love give everything.


Ask of the sea-bird if it loves the sea,

Ask of the roses if they love the rain,

Ask of the little lark, that will not sing

Till day break, if it loves to see the day:—

These are but empty images, shadows of my love, 

which is a fire so great that all the waters of the main

Can not avail to quench it.