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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Happy blogiversary to me

Today marks the first anniversary of this blog. To honor this barely momentous occasion, I would like to talk about an opera I had opportunity to see recently. There’s a perfectly good reason for this, as the opera has similarities to another opera I saw about a year ago and wrote about in this blog’s
second post
. (My first post was about chocolate, or, rather, a well-known place where chocolate is made. While I would’ve been perfectly comfortable writing about chocolate for my blogiversary, I opted instead to eat chocolate while writing about opera. (What, that’s not your idea of fun?)

Last year, I wrote about Chautauqua Opera Company’s very fine production of Susannah. Written in 1952 by Carlisle Floyd, it is based on the Apocryphal story, “Susannah and the Elders,” and serves as a commentary on McCarthy-era politics. Like those whom McCarthy and friends witch-hunted, Susannah is an innocent person unfairly maligned and eventually cast out, her character and reputation ruined. Robert Ward’s opera The Crucible is also based on McCarthyism; in this case the opera draws a parallel between McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials of 1692. Ward’s opera, which premiered in 1961, is based upon Arthur Miller’s play of the same name written in 1953. The social environment of The Crucible is a figurative witch’s cauldron -- a type of crucible.

Here are synopses of both operas (long, sorry):

The Crucible

Act I
The curtain rises on the Reverend Samuel Parris kneeling distraught at the bedside of his daughter Betty. She lies still and scarcely breathing, as she has lain since Parris came upon her and her cousin Abigail dancing in the woods the night before. Tituba, their servant, comes to ask about Betty but is angrily sent away.
Abigail enters to say that the town is whispering of witchcraft and that Parris should go out to make a denial. He bitterly turns on her to question her about the dancing and about her mysterious dismissal from the service of the Proctors. As she vehemently denies any wrongdoing, attributing her dismissal to Goodwife Proctor's arrogant desire for a slave, the Putnams enter to say that their daughter Ruth was stricken at the same time as Betty Parris and that they have sent for the Reverend Hale, known for his skill in discovering witches.
While Parris – fearful of any suspicion of witchcraft in his own household – anxiously doubts the need for Hale, Rebecca and Francis Nurse enter with Giles Corey. When Putnam insists that witches are at work in Salem, Giles accuses him of using a witch scare to defraud his neighbors of their land. John Proctor's entrance only brings this quarrel to a higher peak. Rebecca reprimands the men for this untimely squabble in a house of illness, and calls them back to their senses. Giles departs with John.
They sing a psalm to beseech God's help. As the psalm proceeds, Betty begins to writhe on the bed and then with an unearthly shriek tries to fly out the window. All rush to her side. In the midst of the commotion the Reverend Hale enters and calms them with his air of authority. He soon learns that Tituba has played an important role in what has been happening, having also been present at the dancing in the woods. Ann Putnam asserts that Tituba knows conjuring. Abigail, who has been under severe inquisition by Hale, lashes out to accuse Tituba of compacting with the Devil. Tituba, overwhelmed by the sternness of Hale and the malevolent intensity of Parris and the Putnams, finally confesses that she has been visited by the Devil, but denies that he has persuaded her into any wrongdoing. For a few moments she frightens Parris and the Putnams with a heartfelt fantasy of the hellish power to bring them harm that the Devil had offered her.
With Tituba's confession the spell over Betty is broken. All return to the
psalm in great thanksgiving, while Abby envies the attention now being given to Tituba and hysterically repents her own compact with the Devil.

Act II
John Proctor returns from a day's planting to find Elizabeth listless and moody. In her mind the witch trials have become an aggravation of her domestic troubles, with Abby at the center of both. She insists that John expose Abby's fraud to Judge Danforth. His reluctance to do this convinces her that he still has a warm spot in his heart for Abby. John's self-defense is double: that he has no witness to what Abby told him, and that she will avenge herself by revealing John's adultery with her. And he is fed up with Elizabeth's sitting in condemnation of their love. Abby, she says, will not confess the lechery lest she damn herself. And what of those who suffer in jail because of John's silence? Elizabeth insists that John must tear the last feeling for Abby out of his heart; she will never give up hope of some day having him for her own.
Mary Warren enters furtively from her day at court as one of Abby's crew of witch finders. She says that the number of those arrested has tripled, and that Goody Osburn has been condemned to hang! She is truly troubled by this, and by her own part in it, but demonstrates how the mob excitement of the courtroom procedure turns her into a hysterical accuser even against her will. When John threatens to whip her if she ever returns to that court she blurts out that Goody Proctor herself has been mentioned in court and that only Mary's defense of her prevented an outright accusation.
Elizabeth is sure that Abby is behind this and once more pleads with John to go to the court when Reverend Hale and John Cheever enter with a warrant for her arrest. That very evening Abby has charged Elizabeth with employing a witch's poppet [puppet] to kill her. John makes Mary acknowledge it is her poppet, but Hale, although deeply troubled by these new directions in the witch-hunt, feels that he must arrest Elizabeth for examination.
John is about to burst out wildly to prevent their taking Elizabeth away, but instead turns with intense but controlled passion upon Mary: she will tell her story in court even though it may provoke a charge of adultery from Abby and ruin both Abby and John completely – anything rather than that Elizabeth should be in danger for his sake.

Act III
Scene 1
Abby, with a mixture of scheming but passionate love for John and a mystical belief in her mission, tries to persuade John to abandon Elizabeth and to join her in the holy work of cleansing the puritanically corrupt town. He will not listen to this, but instead pleads that she free the town from the curse of her foolish wickedness, and then threatens to expose her fraud. She defies him, saying that any dire fate that descends on Elizabeth will be of his doing.

Scene 2
Judge Danforth's invocation in court reveals the strength and fervor of his conviction that God's will is working through him to cleanse the land of a plague of witches.
As court opens, Giles Corey accuses Thomas Putnam – in his greed for his neighbors' land – of having bragged of his role in the charges of witchcraft. Judge Danforth sends Corey to jail and torture for refusing to name his witnesses for this accusation. Giles leaps at Putnam as the man responsible for the arrest of his wife and himself, and of Rebecca Nurse as well. John Proctor presents Mary Warren's deposition that the entire crying-out against witches started only as an exciting game for the girls, and is a complete pretense and fraud. But Abby, he says, has continued the game in an effort to dispose of Elizabeth.
Her encouragement to this arose from the adultery that took place between Abby and himself, which he is now confessing. Elizabeth, ordinarily incapable of a lie, is brought in and fails to confirm John's confession. Abigail counterattacks, charging that Mary herself is a witch. Mary, helpless and then hysterical, turns on John Proctor, accusing him of being the Devil's man who has forced her into trying to confuse and overthrow the court. All but the Reverend Hale close in on John Proctor with sadistic vindictiveness.

Act IV
Tituba and Sarah Good, crazed by the rigors of imprisonment, sing of the Devil and his broken promises to them. Abby comes into the prison courtyard, she having bribed the jailer to permit Proctor to escape. John, although broken by the months of prison and torture, scornfully rejects the freedom and love she offers him.
Hale and Parris try to persuade Judge Danforth to postpone the executions of Proctor and Rebecca Nurse scheduled for that morning: Salem may break into open rebellion at the execution of such respected citizens. Danforth indignantly refuses, but agrees to ask Elizabeth to persuade her husband to confess. John is brought in and left alone with Elizabeth. She tells him that Giles Corey has died, pressed to death rather than say aye or nay to the charge of witchcraft, but that many have confessed in order to save their lives. John reluctantly brings out his own wish to confess if it will not make her think ill of him for lying. Passionately she answers that it was her lie that doomed him and that she wants him alive. Exultant, he shouts that he will confess to the charge of witchcraft.
Danforth, Hale and Parris rejoice, for their various reasons, over John's confession, and Parris tries to persuade Rebecca, who has been brought in on the way to the gallows, also to confess. She refuses to damn herself with the lie. John is asked to sign his confession, that it may be exhibited before the town. But this is too much: he has deeply shamed himself by confessing, but he will not set his hand to the destruction of his own name and the eternal shame of his sons. He tears up the document. In fury Danforth orders John and Rebecca to be led out to execution. Hale pleads with Elizabeth that she change John's decision while there is still time. She refuses: "He has found his name and his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him."


Susannah

ACT 1
It is a summer night, and the people of New Hope Valley have gathered for a square dance. Susannah Polk, who is prettier than the other girls, is obviously the center of attention. The Church Elders are attracted to Susannah while their wives discuss the new preacher, Olin Blitch, whom they expect to arrive in the morning. The wives turn their attention to Susannah, and voice their disapproval of her pretty face, her dress, and her manner. The dancing comes to a stop when Blitch arrives. He eventually joins the dancing and dances with Susannah.
Later that evening, Susannah returns to the Polk farmhouse, followed by simple-minded Little Bat McLean. He adores Susannah, but he is afraid of her brother Sam. As Susannah sings of the beauty of the night, Sam returns home. Little Bat runs off at the sight of him, while Susannah tells Sam about the dance.
The following morning, as the four Elders search for an appropriate spot for a baptismal pool, they come upon Susannah bathing naked in the creek. They freeze in shock and outrage, and return to town, proclaiming her wrongdoing.
That evening, there is a picnic supper at the church. The entire town condemns Susannah's actions at the creek. Susannah enters quietly and is stunned when no one will speak to her. The Elder McLean informs her that she is not welcome, and Susannah retreats in confusion.
Later, when Susannah is back at the Polk house, Little Bat enters. He tells her that the Elders have spread the word that they saw her bathing naked in the creek, and they intend to run her out of the church and maybe even the valley. Susannah, who has always bathed there, cannot understand what she did wrong, but Little Bat also reveals that the Elders forced him to "confess" that he had been involved with her. Incensed by his lie, she angrily sends him away. Susannah notices that Sam has appeared and has heard the whole story. He tries to calm her by explaining away what has happened, but Susannah is unable to understand, and bursts into tears.

ACT 2
The following Friday morning, Sam informs his sister what the community wants: a public confession. She replies she has nothing to confess, though she is beginning to wonder whether maybe the devil is tempting her somehow, without her knowledge. The creek is now being used for baptisms, and Blitch has asked her to come to a prayer meeting that evening; Sam thinks she should go to show that she is not afraid, but she feels unable to face public contempt. Sam says he has to empty his traps on the other side of the mountain but will be back the next day, and tells her he will feel better if she is with the community.
That evening Susannah attends the New Hope Church prayer meeting, sitting alone on the last bench. The Reverend Blitch preaches a terrifying sermon. The choir sings, and above the voices, Blitch urges all sinners to come forward. After a number of people go up to him, he stops the singing and speaks of the one sinner who has not approached him. The congregation turns and stares at Susannah. Blitch concentrates his attention on her and she slowly moves forward, transfixed. As she comes to a stop before him, he smiles triumphantly. The spell breaks, and Susannah rushes from the church, refusing to "repent."
An hour later, at the Polk farm, Susannah recalls a folk-like song her mother taught her that reflects her loneliness and sorrow. Blitch arrives, and tells Susannah that he has come to talk about her soul. He tries to convince her to repent. As he is leaving, however, he turns back to Susannah and lets her know he is interested in more than just her soul.
The next morning at the church, Blitch prays, begging for forgiveness of his sin against God and Susannah. She enters, along with the Elders, their wives and the other town folk. Blitch has called them, he explains, to right a wrong. He proclaims Susannah's innocence and asks them all to forgive her. The Elder McLean stubbornly demands to know why Blitch has had a change of heart. Blitch responds that the Lord spoke to him in prayer, but the Elders reject this. Blitch pleads with Susannah that he has tried to make amends, and asks for her forgiveness. She responds that she no longer knows what that word means.
When Sam returns home, he learns of Blitch's actions with his sister. Enraged, he kills the preacher at the baptismal pool. Susannah hears the shot and realizes what has happened even before Little Bat rushes in with the news. Laughing at their attempts to make her feel guilty, she takes a gun and orders them off the property. Undefeated, they retreat, leaving Susannah a lonely, embittered woman.


All of the evil deeds in both of these operas demonstrate what human nature cannot help but do if it remains unchecked. When people take matters into their own hands instead of leaving them in God’s, they blame, condemn, damage, and destroy. Rather than absolve their own souls in the saving mercy of Christ’s death and resurrection, they attempt to purge their surroundings of the problem. (On a lesser scale, it reminds me of what others have said about finding the perfect church: it will never be one that you attend!) It also shows what happens when people attempt to satisfy normal human desires in illicit ways or hold to a societal standard for the sake of the standard rather than for whether it's inherently right or wrong.

Note the difference in the ways Rev. Blitch and John Proctor handle their fornication/adultery: Blitch, though realizing and remorseful for his wrong, still attempts to save face by failing to confess to the elders. Proctor, on the other hand, confesses his adultery, although this does not have the desired effect on the court. He refuses, ultimately, to lie about not being a witch, and for this he is executed (martyred). Although his refusal is not expressly for God’s sake, it is out of his sense of his own dignity and the honor of his progeny that he chooses even to desert his family, including his pregnant wife: he chooses the farthest-reaching good.

So often, we get caught up in the immediate. We can’t see beyond the situation at hand nor delay gratification long enough to get a sense of the consequences and ramifications of our actions. Once those hit, though, we spend all kinds of effort trying to rationalize, deny, or otherwise make them go away. Another way that this happens is via group dynamics: people are all too quick to jump on the bandwagon of a “noble” cause because there is power in numbers, and because we can all too easily corrupt our instinctual need to belong and to receive support from others.

One reviewer, whose article I cannot find at the moment, likened Judge Danforth to others who claim to be “doing the will of God” in that they mistake their own will for God’s. While this certainly happens, both consciously and unconsciously, it is not so in every case; the reviewer's charge is a handy one for those who may have trouble accepting God’s Word/Truth/judgment through any means. Not every crusade is misguided, though, nor driven by hostility and accomplished by force so as to make it unjustifiable.

The glory of John Proctor’s final decision was marvelously displayed on the set of The Crucible. The props consisted mainly of walls of loosely-set slats that evoked sparse log buildings, and the many levels of symbolism represented here were marvelous. The lighting was subdued, for the most part. However, as Rebecca Nurse and Proctor were led to the gallows, they exited the “building” (jail) toward stage rear through a brightly-lit doorway, as if they were entering the gateway of heaven. Very effective.

Proctor's fate also illustrates the sacrifice that must be made in order to do what is right, whether mild inconvenience or loss of one's life. We truly must be prepared to lose everything for God's sake, because in so doing we gain everything that He has to offer, not the least of which is eternal life. We take the damage inflicted by others onto ourselves as Christ took on crucifixion. In Susannah's case, however, she was not able to bear the damage through God's grace but rather buckled under it, completely shutting off from those whom she loved as well as from those who hurt her.

In general, I did not find the performance of The Crucible to be as satisfactory as that of Susannah; I could barely understand the libretto. At first I wondered if it was just me, but further inquiry assured me that it wasn’t; a reviewer even mentioned it. Phew. Guess I don’t need to check for earwax. Some of this difficulty may have been due to the angular nature of the melodic lines (though the singing was superb), the fact that there was frequent vocal counterpoint and ensemble singing, and the fact that the orchestral score was also angular and heavy (though superbly executed. And I’m not biased ;-) ). ‘Tis a shame, for certainly I missed many subtleties.

The acting, however, was truly excellent. Tension and drama reigned throughout. I thought that Jane Ohmes as Abigail and Brian Davis as John Proctor were especially terrific. I saw a completely different side of Ohmes as the mean-spirited, manipulative Abigail than I saw in her portrayal of the sweet-to-desolate Susannah. Davis superbly portrayed Proctor’s decline from strong, angry citizen to utterly bedraggled and broken man. Remaining in character through the curtain call, he finally cracked a grin and straightened his posture at the very end.

Robert Ward himself attended the first actual performance of The Crucible at Chautauqua, and I was very disappointed to be unable to attend a public pre-performance interview with him. I have met Ward once before, while playing his “Fantasia for Brass Choir and Tympani” under his baton. He was a very pleasant, kindly, grandfatherly-type of gentleman. Hard to imagine such a kindly soul writing this intense and powerful opera!

Here is an interview by Bruce Duffie in which Ward discusses opera, The Crucible, and the spiritual nature of his writing.

10 Comments:

  • Congratulations on blogging for a year. The hardest thing about blogging is to have something to say (or show). You seem to have handled that.

    By Blogger Martin LaBar, at 6:59 PM  

  • What a fantastic post! I have not seen the Crucible as an opera - just the movie (Winona Ryder I think). It is a brilliant story (in a very tragic sense).

    Congratulations on 1 year of blogging. Just yesterday I read about 5-6 of your posts - including some from your Contraception series.

    Bonnie - I appreciate the spirit of your writing. You obviously have a fine mind and a gentle heart with it. I learn from you.

    God bless,
    Catez

    By Blogger Catez, at 7:27 PM  

  • Happy Anniversary! On with the chocolate!

    By Blogger Lexie, at 8:19 PM  

  • Congratulations Bonnie! You're a wonderful asset to the blogosphere and of course to Intellectuelle (see my opera comments over there). I read the Crucible in high school but liked The Scarlet Letter better (there's probably a limerick in there somewhere...but no opera! ;) Forgive me for not reading the breadth of your post now--I'm finishing up a three day bookkeeping marathon so my eyes are blurry and my mind is fuzzy.

    By Blogger jane, at 12:05 AM  

  • Happy blogging anniversary! Somehow, I assumed you had been in the game a lot longer than I, but you've only about four months ahead.

    Thanks for this post. I would like to get into opera more, Bonnie, as I already love musicals and cantatas. My favorite musical is "Phantom of the Opera" but that's not opera!

    By Blogger Hannah Im, at 8:48 PM  

  • Thanks so much, everyone. I am honored and encouraged by your words. Thanks for reading what I write!

    (Catez, please feel free to comment on the C...n series; I would welcome your input)

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 9:42 PM  

  • Happy, happy!

    By Blogger TulipGirl, at 11:46 PM  

  • Congrats Bonnie! Blog on!!

    By Blogger Elena, at 10:07 AM  

  • I really enjoyed the beautful hot air balloon pics. It reminds me some of Freedom Weekend Aloft held in Anderson SC.

    By Blogger Kathy Nicholson, at 10:32 PM  

  • congrats, Bonnie.

    I have been reading your blog/blogs off and on now and really enjoy them. As a matter of fact, I highlighted your personal blog on my favorite women bloggers list.

    Your recent post resonated with me since this past winter I discovered how much I love opera when my husband and I saw Tosca at the Chicago Lyric Opera House.

    By Blogger prairie girl, at 7:53 AM  

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