The Tale of Januarie

(2017) Full-length opera in four acts



The pear tree is bare and a wassailing chorus surround the apple tree. Priapus wheels his barrow around the tree and introduces the story of the worthy, old Knight Januarie.

Old Januarie consults his two friends Justinus and Placebo on whether to marry. Justinus advises against it, but Januarie follows Placebo’s advice and decides to take a young wife. At the busy winter market, Januarie finds a beautiful young woman, May, and decides to take her as his wife, not before May has caught the eye of Januarie’s squire, Damyan.


Three nymphs celebrate the arrival of spring, as Pluto and his wife Proserpina ascend from hell at the turning of the year, Pluto grumbling, Proserpina relishing the warmth of spring. They witness the wedding procession of Januarie and May, Proserpina appalled by such an old man taking such a young wife, while Pluto is amused. The wedding is completed with May forced to endure a grotesque wedding night as Damyan laments his loss.

Januarie celebrates the first morning of his new married life, but sends his wife May off to chivy his absent squire, Damyan. Damyan attempts to write May a love letter, which he smuggles into her hands when May and her maidservants come visiting.

May, ensconced in the privy, savours Damyan’s love letter; Januarie calls for her offstage. On their second wedding night, Januarie orders his wife to strip. Proserpina is so disgusted she calls on Fortuna to intervene and Januarie is struck blind.


Three nymphs tease the gardener Priapus, upending him in his priapic state into his weelbarrow. A now frail and vulnerable Januarie enters with Placebo and Justinus reviewing the wall he has had built around his garden, with the key hangin about his neck. Once again in the bedroom, May tricks Januarie into giving up the key to his garden, allowing Damyan to make an impression in the cooling wax of his guttering candle.

Outside the garden, a chorus of courting couples enter, trying the gate, but find it locked. Januarie and May follow, but May conrives an argument with her husband, allowing Damyan time to slip into the garden. Once in the garden, May guides Januarie to the pear tree and Damyan up into its branches. She feigns a desire for pears from the tree and persuades Januarie to help her up, into the arms of her lover Damyan, who wastes no times in lifting up her smock and having his way with her. At the height of passion, Pluto restores Januarie’s sight, but in the argument that ensues, May successfully argues a way out.


Four months later, Priapus comes to harvest his crops while the townsfolk praise Demeter, great harvest queen. A funeral bell is tolling – we see a pregnant May alone in widow’s weeds. From another direction, Pluto and Proserpina enter with barefoot Januarie, who has now passed on, and is in his shroud. Januarie begs Pluto for more time on earth, approaching May in desperation, but she doesn’t see him. He consoles himself in the unborn child – ‘An fader I am!’; out of pity, Pluto witholds the truth of the child’s parentage.

The three nymphs circle the pear tree again, preparing for their return to Hell with Pluto and Proserpina. Priapus closes the story:

The pear has ripen on its tree
Thus endeth heere the Tale of Januarie



The Tale of Januarie wikipedia entry



Cast & orchestra


Januarie – tenor

Placebo – tenor

Justinus – baritone

May – soprano

Damyan – high baritone

Signora Friuli/Mandrake Rosina – mezzo soprano

Signora Ravizza/
Flycap/Julieta  – mezzo soprano

Signora Farina/
Nightshade/Laura – mezzo soprano

Father Bruno – bass

Full Chorus

Pluto – medium baritone

Proserpina – soprano



On stage musicians: flute/viola/harp, 3 bagpipes, percussion (2 players)

3d2, 2+cor, 2+bass, 2+contra;; timp, perc x 3, harp, strings


Based on Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, The Tale of Januarie was commissioned by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and premiered on the 27th February 2017 in the Silk Street Theatre at the Guildhall School. The production was directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans and conducted by Dominic Wheeler, with designs by Dick Bird and lightning by designer Mark Jonathan.

The libretto for The Tale of Januarie was conceived by writer Stephen Plaice entirely in Chaucerian middle English, which makes it the first full-length Middle English opera. The opera has a running time of 2 hours, 10 minutes and was dedicated to Professor Sir Barry Ife, Principal of the Guildhall School (2004-17).