The comedy Der Besuch der alten Dame, first performed in 1956, made the playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt world famous, especially following the 1963 film version starring Ingrid Bergmann. Gottfried von Einem had seen the play shortly after its premiere and considered it as the basis of an opera. However, it was to be ten years before he began work on it. When Dürrenmatt learned of this plan and became familiar with von Einem’s style he quickly agreed to adapt his play as a libretto himself. The hugely successful premiere took place on 23 May 1971 at the Vienna State Opera. Dürrenmatt’s parable about the amorality of an apparently decent, respectable but secretly money-loving and self-centred middle-class community is as topical in 2018 as it was when it was written. Von Einem’s intense musical portrayal of the murderous atmosphere that gradually descends around Claire’s victim, Ill the shopkeeper, the evocative use of orchestral colours and not least the part of Claire Zachanassian, a tour de force for a mezzo-soprano, made the opera one of von Einem’s most enduring successes.
As a young woman, Claire Zachanassian was made pregnant and then abandoned by Ill, the shopkeeper, in her home town of Güllen. She was driven out of the small town by the sanctimonious inhabitants, humiliated and branded a whore. Many years later, her numerous marriages have left her fabulously wealthy, and she returns to Güllen, which is now utterly decrepit and impoverished. She has an empty coffin with her: she plans to take deadly revenge on the man who seduced her so heartlessly. If Ill is murdered for her in Güllen, she will give the town a billion. Following the initial shock, the greed for money prevails and the cynical plan works. Ill is captured by the townsfolk and killed, and they receive the billion. Claire departs again with his body in the coffin as a hunting trophy.