The Tangle that is Italy
The Setting of Where Angels Fear to Tread
by Roger Brunyate
By the time our three-act opera Where Angels Fear to Tread reaches the stage of Peabody’s Miriam Friedberg Concert Hall on February 25, 1999, it will have been almost exactly seven years since the composer Mark Lanz Weiser and I first began talking about adapting the Forster novel. Mark had a desire to write a comedy with serious overtones. His first opera, a one-act piece based on Yeats’ play Purgatory, had been performed at Peabody while he was still a student, so he had worked straight tragedy out of his system for a while. We had just come off a production of The Marriage of Figaro, for which Mark (at that time a piano major) was rehearsal accompanist, so perhaps something of Mozart’s spirit of serious comedy had gotten into our souls. Anyway, it seemed a natural segue to think of basing an opera on that most Mozartian of modern novelists, E. M. Forster.
|Mark Lanz Weiser|
|in rehearsal for Where Angels Fear to Tread|
So the three English people descend on Monteriano once more. It would spoil the story’s many surprises to continue the synopsis here. But it is at this point, fully half-way through the novel, that the main emotional action begins: two days filled with frustration and enchantment, blossoming love and burgeoning self-knowledge, tragedy and ultimate reconciliation, all enfolded in that terrible magic which is Forster’s view of Italy.
|A street in San Gimigniano|
There are times in the novel when Monteriano seems almost like a character in its own right. Forster endows it with human qualities, describing it as a tangle of “beauty, evil, charm, vulgarity, mystery.” His Monteriano has an emotion and drama of its own, reflected in its history, its architecture, and the collective life of its people. It is a disturbing setting rather than a comfortable one. It challenges convention and complacency, bringing out the strongest reactions in the other characters. Clearly, it means more to Forster than just a place.
In general, Forster’s attitude to foreign countries (it is seen also in A Passage to India) could be described as that of the superior tourist. Not for him the superficial visits to the major sites and an early departure; he wants to linger. He wants to imagine what it would be like to live in a place. But he never does live there himself, even in his imagination, to the point where the exotic becomes humdrum. He needs always to remain a visitor, aware of the exoticism as something different from his everyday life. The foreign setting becomes a screen upon which he projects needs and desires which come as much from within himself as from the other culture. It is the place where feelings can be allowed free rein. For Forster was very reluctant to express feelings in any other way.
I knew Forster at Cambridge. That is to say, he would open his rooms in King’s College to any young men who cared to visit him, and I was one of many who found our way there for a glass of port or sherry and a couple of hours of maddeningly elusive conversation. For while Forster loved to talk, it would always be of things outside himself. He would seldom speak of literature, and never of his own work. He might talk about music for hours, including his friendship with Benjamin Britten, but would steer the conversation gently away when it came to his one direct collaboration with the composer, as librettist for Billy Budd. So saying that I knew Forster is wrong: I was enthralled by his conversation, culture, and enthusiasms; but the only thing I truly knew about him was the fact of his extraordinary emotional reticence.
|Forster in the Nineteen-twenties|
|About the time he stopped writing novels|
The English encounter with Italy seems more than a mere conflict of cultures; it is a symbol of the clash between a life conducted according to convention and one truly ruled by the heart. As is now well known, this clash had a very personal meaning for Forster, who, as a homosexual, felt he could never publicly express the true feelings of his own heart. Eventually, it caused him to abandon the writing of fiction altogether. For the time being, however, he managed by projecting himself through a kind of wish-fulfillment into situations and places which were deliberately foreign to him. But in his writing for the mainstream characters he proceeds mainly by hints, though always treating them with a wondrous sympathy and understanding.
|Anne Jennifer Nash as Caroline|
The other need was to make the maximum use of Forster’s setting, because that is the primary reflector of what is going on with the characters. Our decision to set the entire opera in Monteriano gives extraordinary importance to the stage picture. Tony Cisek of Washington’s Arena Stage has designed an evocative and mobile set whose crumbling beauty and looming masses will be a constant force throughout. And the same is true of the music and words. In looking back at the book, I realize that phrases I remember from it do not appear in so many words; without knowing it, I have concentrated Forster’s prose descriptions into passages of verse more highly colored than the lighter tones of the novel — even at the risk of veering towards a purple which he would have abhorred!
Throughout his novels, Forster is always present as a detached, witty narrator. At the moment when Philip first seems to be falling in love with Caroline, for instance, the author comments thus:
Philip smiled, and was shocked at himself for smiling, and smiled again. For romance had come back to Italy; there were no cads in her; she was beautiful, courteous, lovable, as of old. And Miss Abbott — she, too, was beautiful in her way, for all her gaucheness and conventionality. She really cared about life, and tried to live it properly. And Harriet — even Harriet tried.
This admirable change in Philip proceeds from nothing admirable, and may therefore provoke the gibes of the cynical. But angels and other practical people will accept it reverently, and write it down as good.
There is certainly feeling here, but it is directed at the place rather than towards another person. Furthermore, it is described obliquely, in the author’s charmingly offhand voice. Forster seldom lets an emotional moment pass without bringing his gentle cynicism to bear in dissecting it. This is not an unattractive quality on his part, for he is always witty, his wit is genial and without malice, and his detachment gives the novels perspective and depth. But it will not do for opera. What we need here is a love duet, or something that approaches so close to one as to make no matter. All through the piece, emotional reactions that are merest hints in the original must be brought to the surface and proclaimed for what they are. If music cannot be allowed to do what it does best — expressing passion — there would be little point in writing opera.
Our techniques for making the necessary translation involved first of
all the conversion of many of Forster’s descriptions into direct
speech. So, at the moment mentioned above, our Philip now sings:
|“…spattered at their base with ancient blood”|
|The Towers of San Gimigniano|
He apologized? Why, then it’s true:
There are no cads in Italy after all!
Caroline — Miss Abbott — thank you:
Beauty and love and honor have returned to Italy,
And you have been their messenger!
But this is still connective tissue; opera requires arias and duets, moments when the words become less literal, and the music takes over. So a little later, Philip looks out of the window at one of the medieval towers of Monteriano, and begins an aria (the concentrated essence of several descriptive passages in the novel) which sums up much of what Italy seems to represent for Forster:
Beautiful and terrible. Those aged stones
Burnished by the copper sun
Are spattered at their base with ancient blood.
The tower that stretches up to heaven
Reaches also down to hell.
Violence and splendor, mystery and charm,
Knotted in the tangle that is Italy —
The story of the ages seeps into the soul,
Leaving a legacy of passion,
Ready to erupt in violence,
Or blossom into beauty.
Finally, to end the scene, Caroline does something that her counterpart does not do at all in the novel: for the first time, she struggles to express her personal feelings directly, in an aria which soon becomes a duet:
All winter long, I found myself awakening
To beauty and to splendor and to light.
And when spring came,
I knew I had to fight the pettiness I hated.
I failed, and fled in my disgrace.
Now coming back, I waken once again
To beauty, tinged with terror, hope, and shame.
Perhaps the splendor is a flame
That burns within us anywhere we go,
A spark of passion we can each embrace?
But these are mere words. The function of words in a libretto is to inspire music, and the quality of Mark Weiser’s wonderful response cannot either be described or contained by them. The result of his Herculean labor of love — over four years of sketching, revising, and scoring — will be heard only on February 25, 1999, when the people of Forster’s Monteriano finally take wing in song.Return to top