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|Work Title||The Women in the Garden|
|Alternative. Title||A chamber opera for five singers and nine instruments|
|Year/Date of CompositionY/D of Comp.||1977|
|First Performance.||1978-02-12, San Francisco
|Librettist||Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)|
Isadora Duncan (1877-1927)
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
|Average DurationAvg. Duration||62 minutes|
|Composer Time PeriodComp. Period||Modern|
|Instrumentation||Vocal soli with Chamber Ensemble
In The Women in the Garden, four women, the writer Gertrude Stein, the dancer Isadora Duncan, the novelist Virginia Woolf and the poet Emily Dickinson are brought together, and, in the course of the opera, come to know one another. There is no attempt to recreate the women historically. They appear through an imaginative process in which the past is enacted as if it were the present, much like in a dream. Three of the characters, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Isadora Duncan, were actively engaged in their careers in the 1920s. There is, however, no record of them ever having met. Emily Dickinson died when the others were children. These discrepancies of time and place do not present a barrier to all four meeting in the garden as contemporaries. A fifth character, the Tenor, plays multiple roles, some defined, others not, and freely shifts from one to another. The surreal, dreamlike aspect of the encounter is reinforced by the plotless, freely associated libretto, drawn from the writing of the four women.
The disparate concerns and energies of the characters, expressed singly or ensemble, create an ever-shifting emotional landscape, alternately philosophical, romantic, humorous, and tragic….A 9-piece chamber ensemble of winds, strings, piano and varied percussion supports the singers with accompaniments that define the different characters and moods even as they weave an otherworldy spell throughout the opera.
In the opening scene, the women introduce themselves. Gertrude sings of man, human nature, and time, Emily of “that sacred closet entitled memory.” Isadora of her affinity for the sea, and Virginia of novel writing and the effect of sex upon the novelist.
Scene II is a meeting between Emily and the Tenor as her imagined lover. They sing about an exchange of letters. “The way I read a letter’s this: ‘Tis first I lock the door, and push it with my fingers next, for transport it be sure.”
Emily is joined by Virginia and Gertrude in Scene III. Virginia sings “My shattered mind is pieced together by some sudden perception.” Emily reflects on immortality and tells that when she died her occupation was recorded by the Amherst town clerk as “at home.” Gertrude continues to make aphoristic remarks on human nature, time, and money.
Scene IV opens with a long lament sung by Isadora on the loss of her three children. She begins with the line, “Oh why, oh why should my mama be so sad and so sorry?” These are the words one of her children used when seeing Isadora dance to the Chopin Funeral March (the harmonies from the Funeral March appear in the score in this section). When two children died in an accident soon afterwards, Isadora found the words to have been strangely prophetic. Continuing, Isadora sings of her anguish, “My spirit is crushed forever.” Emily joins her with “Pain has an element of blank.” Then Virginia sings, “Sleep, sleep I croon…wrapping in a cocoon made of my own blood the delicate limbs of my baby.” The scene ends with a quartet sung by the four women.
In Scene V, Gertrude, departing from her role as commentator, expresses a concern about the difference between human nature and the human mind. She quotes Jules Verne, “He weeps, that shows he is a man.” “But,” she says, “a dog can have tears in his eyes when he has been disillusioned.” The Tenor joins her in a duet. (There is a short musical quotation from Erik Satie’s Three Flaccid Preludes for a Dog in this scene.)
Virginia begins Scene VI with a story of the difference an inheritance can make to a woman. Virginia and Gertrude then sing a duo, speaking of the position of women, “The woman composer stands where the actress stood in the time of Shakespeare,” and of money, “I cannot begin too often to wonder what money is.”
In Scene VII, Emily sings, “Our journey had advanced, Our feet were almost come to that odd fork in Being’s road, Eternity by term.” Emily and Isadora are joined by the Tenor, who appears to Emily as her father and to Isadora as her lover, Gordon Craig. Isadora continues, using Emily’s words, “For each ecstatic instant we must an anguish pay.” Emily and the Tenor sing of her decision to remain with her father…”because he would miss me.” There follows an angry exchange between Isadora and the Tenor. “Why do you want to go on stage and wave your arms: Why don’t you stay at home and sharpen my pencils?” The scene concludes with a trio in which the words and experiences of Emily and Isadora merge and entwine as the Tenor continues in his dual role of father and lover.
In Scene VIII, the four women continue to draw on each other’s words as well as their own. They sing of bells, chimes, clocks, directions: “How still the bells in steeples stand till swollen with the sky they leap upon their silver feet in frantic melody…a bell tolls, but not for death…I am in love with life!…The sailor cannot see the North, but knows the needle can…At this moment a church clock chimed in the valley…cymbals, drums, bones beaten perpetually.” Musical materials recur as each woman, joined by the others, sings of a personal concern. Isadora evokes the memory of an early love, Emily recalls her fear of asking her father how to tell time, Isadora and Emily begin to quote Gertrude’s views on man and human nature, and the four woman together repeat the opening lines of the work. Virginia’s words, “The ceremony is over,” herald the end of the opera. In a final quartet, the women’s thoughts interweave: “The ceremony is over…Now I must go on waving…my longings go out to you in waves…where are we going? Never fear that I shall forget.” The opera closes as Gertrude and the Tenor sing once more, “Man is, Man was, man will be gregarious and solitary.”
A remarkable contemporary work, with a tintinnabulating orchestral score of delicate beauty, thoroughly idiomatic (if difficult) vocal lines, and a civilized, wholesome warmth.
Fine integrates the eclectic texts with extraordinary clarity, a masterful sense of contrasts and a capacity for sheer beauty in the vocal composition.
The ensembles were high moments, lovely, especially the radiant climax on the joyfulness of life, when the women find each other as one. Fine’s music for this opera of character counterpoint is lyrical, rhythmically alive, beautifully proportioned and phrased and as vocal as can be. The textures are clear, the contrasts and color values are refined. It’s never extreme, never overreaches for novelty. The score, which uses a mixed septet and much percussion, is original and distinctive in the ways it achieves its expressive purposes.
...the differing values of those four remarkable women interact, not in…dramatic conflict, but in response to their own experiences with men…and…to each other. The Women suggests…really communicative theater…where plot narrative gives way to…narrative of mood and idea.
Women is filled with beautiful interweaving melodies, from a lovely, melancholy soprano and flute duet to a moving harmonic quartet in which Duncan laments the death of her children and the other women gather to comfort her. There is an abundance of musical wit and delight, as well. Stein and the Tenor engage in a musical debate on human nature that is a virtuosi duet of humorous counterpoint and rhythm.
After a succession of isolated soliloquies, the interrelationships among the texts begin to emerge and build to a stunning climax in a quartet where the ringing of bells signifies the celebration of life….Fine writes so expressively for voice that the best sections, including two ensembles on the themes of suffering and joy, were overwhelming in their effect.
A wonderfully engrossing hour…accessible…rewarding….The personalities of the four women (superbly presented, far more than a mere impersonation of famous figures) create drama in the absence of plot.
The music for the four female voices is remarkable, a richly textured quartet. The opera has a feminist spirit, but is amusing and lively, not bitter….
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