Marquise of O. Opera

2.Synopsis

Prologue (Proscenium arch)

At the outset, the action follows the first lines of Kleist’s novella, complemented by visual images. The instrumental overture conveys the uproar caused by the Marquise’s newspaper announcement.

Hands holding newspapers are projected onto the curtain or projection screen. They point excitedly to one spot: Appearing in large letters on the curtain:  “Without my knowing how it came about, I find myself with child. I ask the father of the child whom I am carrying, please to come forward.  I am resolved, out of consideration for my family, to marry him. The Marquise of O...” 

In front of the curtain, small groups of townspeople gather to read the latest news. A few of them express their surprise and disbelief; very soon these remarks become sarcastic. As these groups move offstage, their mood is sneering and disdainful.

Scene 1: The living room of the Commandant’s house in a North Italian fort under French control near Modena.

The curtain opens on an idyllic scene: The family of Commandant von G., the commander of the citadel, does not seem aware of the impending battle. The Commandant, however,  wonders whether war will indeed come to them; he then proclaims his love for his family. His wife responds with slight irony but affection, whereas Julietta, his daughter, the widowed Marquise of O., turns to her twin children, Louise and Mario, about 8-9 years old. Her brother Stephan interests himself in their artwork, a drawing of a ginkgo leaf (subtheme of opera).

Her mother reminds Julietta that she is still young enough to marry a second time [compared to other opera heroines, she is about as old as the Marschallin in the Rosenkavalier]. Julietta, however, insists that she enjoys her present life, raising and educating her children and does not consider remarrying. She sings of her dreams and fantasies, revealing the happiness she shared with her late husband, who died while travelling.

Talking with her twins, memories of her children’s father flood her mind. She meditates about the “double and one” which occurs in marriage. Gazing at the ginkgo tree outside their window, she reminds her children of the poem about the ginkgo leaf (Goethe), also “double and one”. One of the children begins to sing the first few measures of its musical setting, as the other chimes in.

Julietta forces herself back into reality. Almost at the same time, the sound of canon fire signals the nearing conflict and interrupts the idyllic family scene. Russian troops fighting against Napoleon are closer than expected.

With a grandiose gesture, the Commandant turns away from his family, solemnly warning them that they will have to fend for themselves and hurries to join his soldiers.

The scene changes in darkness. Sounds of war (both taped and live) combine with flickering fingers of flame (projection), as parts of the fort are set on fire.

Scene 2: Surrounded by the ramparts of the fort, a small park with a gazebo on an elevation next to the Commandant’s house to the left; to the right, another house within the compound.

Russian soldiers have burst onto the scene, flickering fire illuminates the grounds. Women are seen running away from soldiers. Julietta, her mother and Susanna, Julietta’s servant, appear in front of the Commandant’s house calling for the twins, who appear from behind the house to the right. Everyone rushes back to the house but Julietta seems disoriented. She hesitates briefly and is surrounded by five soldiers. Four of them seize her by the arms and legs and brutally pin her to the ground. The ringleader kneels between her legs, grabs her crotch and is about to rape her when the Russian officer, Count F., appears, knocks the ringleader unconscious, slashing his face, and chases the rest away.

Unable to stand, Julietta, weakened and confused, half-kneeling before him, looks up; in a resonant moment, their eyes meet. Count F. lifts her up, supports her, and leads her to the gazebo, where she falls into unconsciouness.

Susanna returns, sees Count F. attending to Julietta, offers to serve food and drink, closes the curtain of the gazebo, and rushes away.

A few moments later, Count F. steps in front of the curtain, apparently dazed but deep in thought.

When Susanna returns, he has recovered his composure somewhat and hurries away to be with those soldiers in his command; Julietta is being cared for by Susanna.

Julietta appears in front of the gazebo, weakened and grim. She remembers her rescuer, becoming more reassured. But a feeling of rage replaces that of terror as she realizes how vulnerable she was to the brutality of the soldiers. Trembling with anxiety and anger but in control of her emotions, she enters her father’s house with Susanna.

A little later the Commandant and Count F. confront each other. They agree upon the traditional ritual surrender of the Commandant’s sword to Count F. as a symbol of honor, but loss in battle.

Curtain: An interlude leads from the war scene to the beginning of a new day.

Scene 3: As before, the small park.

The Russian General, surrounded by his officers and residents of the fort, inquires about the attempted rape. Count F. replies, with nervous and halted speech, in sentences that are clipped and evasive. Residents of the fort can, however, identify the ringleader and his rowdy band of soldiers. They appear in front of the General, who formulates his verdict without delay: The five soldiers are to be executed immediately.

The ringleader, kneeling before the general, urgently insists that he is a good soldier and explains that sordid events of this kind occurred after many battles; the soldiers were entitled to such ‘spoils of war’. The General ignores this shameful remark and orders the soldiers to be led away. The ringleader tears himself away from his guards and shouts at the General: “Don’t you also visit your prostitutes on weekends?” He is torn away by the guards. A short while later one hears the sound of the executions; the Count appears distraught and in disarray.

The scene ends with the General and Count F. bidding the Commandant a formal farewell. They hurry off to the next military engagement.

Curtain

Scene 4: On proscenium arch: at a halfway point in the family’s travel to their Modena townhouse.

Dejected due to the defeat but also relieved that everyone has survived the fighting without serious injury, they pause in their journey. Julietta speaks warmly about Count F., she imagines his face, the expression of his eyes. She felt as if an angel had come from heaven to rescue her.

Stephan returns from Modena and delivers the news that Count F. has suffered a mortal injury in battle on the day after he had left the fort.

Julietta is overcome with grief about this loss. She confesses her intense feeling for this man and muses that he might have been the second significant partner in her life.

Scene 5: After a few months: in the family’s living room in their townhouse in Modena.

Mother and daughter talk about the recent events and specifically about Julietta’s recent health problems. Julietta mentions the similarity of some symptoms with those of pregnancy. They do not take this seriously but talk about this curiosity in a serene and relaxed manner.

Suddenly Stephan appears, agitated and excited, and reports that Count F. is alive after all, has arrived in the city, and indeed is already waiting in the antechamber to be received by the family.

Count F. enters. The magical moment of the former rescue is revivified for Julietta and Count F. Julietta, taking up the language of the ginkgo poem, articulates her feelings: While she was being rescued, she had felt protected, experiencing again the “double and one” with him. Count F. joins her by taking up lines from the ginkgo poem. He startles the family (the Commandant has joined them in the meantime) with an extraordinary marriage proposal: He requests that he be allowed to marry Julietta on the spot.

Explaining the urgency of his request, he points to practical circumstances: He is obliged to carry urgent dispatches to Naples and therefore could not remain with the family over an extended period. To the puzzlement of family, he also explains that there is a soulfelt urge which compels him to make this proposal without delay. He also refers to an incident from his childhood which has haunted him to that day. Leaving the family to probe the meaning of this story, he tells about an event with a white swan at whom he had thrown dirt. The swan had dived into the water and had surfaced in sparkling whiteness. Until today he has felt the burden of guilt: How could a person commit an evil act without premeditation?

A back-and-forth ensues about the marriage proposal. In the end Count F. insists that he might simply disobey his orders to deliver the dispatches and rather stay in the city. After pronouncing his decision, he leaves the family to ponder for a moment on his suggestions.

The result of a lively family discussion is an offer to Count F.: Julietta would conduct herself as if she were formally engaged to Count F. and would not consider any other suitor. Count F. would follow orders and deliver the dispatches.

Count F. accepts the proposal, leaving immediately. Everyone expects that he will be back in four to six weeks.

Curtain

Scene 6: In the same living room.

Obviously worried, Julietta is waiting for her mother, who will arrive shortly. She confides to her that, although a pregnancy is simply not possible, her physical state has become so similar that she has called for their doctor. He would be able to explain her strange symptoms.

Within a few minutes of his arrival, the doctor declares to Julietta that she is, without a doubt, expecting a third child. Julietta responds with angry insults and sends the doctor away. Indignant, she can hardly control her fury. Her mother asks Susanna to fetch the midwife.

An altercation between mother and daughter develops. The mother grows more and more suspicious of Julietta’s veracity. Deeply concerned, she leaves the room to inform her husband.

The midwife corroborates the pregnancy and proposes an abortion. Julietta utters understanding for those poor desperate girls who may seek an abortion, but she emphasizes that she herself will not consider such a choice, that of denying a living part of herself.

The enraged father appears, condemns Julietta without listening to her defense, orders her to leave the house, and rushes out of the room.

Julietta is left alone in total dismay. After a while Stephan appears, looking at her with disdain, and hands her a letter from the father in which he confirms total separation between parents and daughter.

Julietta sends Susanna to fetch the twins who appear, confused and apprehensive.

The Commandant returns and orders Julietta to hurry up. Her attempts to make her father comprehend her plight are in vain; the father threateningly grabs a pistol, pulls the trigger, and screams at her to leave and to leave without her children.

At this climactic moment, Julietta’s attitude, in fact, her entire demeanor changes. She rises above feelings of misery and self pity. With calm determination, she faces her father, who is still raving irrationally, and exclaims: “This is inhuman! Shoot me if you will but you shall not take my children away from me.” She stalks out of the room, children in hand.

Projected in large letters onto the stage Kleist’s original sentence appears: “This splendid effort caused her to truly know herself; as if with her own hands, she raised herself right out of the depths into which fate had cast her.”

Curtain

Intermission

Scene 7: The family’s living room in the townhouse.

Again we see the hands and the newspapers, as in the Prologue, but then father, mother and son are seen in the living room. The Commandant, reading the newspaper, with the Marquise’s announcement, lets it sink down. He says with horror in his voice: “Now she’s become insane.” Father and son engage in a flurry of extreme accusations; at this point, the mother begins to question the men’s statements. The father forbids any further contact with Julietta and leaves the room with his son. The mother makes clear that she will not honor her husband’s order. She asks herself how she might uncover the truth behind this mystery.

Curtain

Scene 8:  The sitting room of Julietta’s country estate.

Julietta is kneeling in front of a painting of the Mother of God and starts talking with her as if with a living person. She explains that the reason for her advertisement was not so much out of fear of society’s banishment as it was out of her conviction that the child is entitled to know the identity of his/her father. She asks Mother Mary some frank questions: “How was it with you? Did you know what was growing inside you? Did you not protest in fear and anger?”

She barely controls her agitation and starts to recite the Ave Maria. After the “and blessed is the fruit of your womb… “, she breaks off.  A boundless indignation overcomes her: “cursed is the fruit of my womb, cursed by my father and even by my mother!”

Her mother, who has silently entered, has heard the last sentences. “Not by your mother!” she calls softly. Mother and daughter embrace, deeply moved.

They talk about the inception of the pregnancy. Julietta reminds her mother of her dreams: that she loves to sleep outside during the summer time, that she has often yielded to feelings of bliss while gazing up at the moon and stars, that she has sometimes enjoyed some wine before falling asleep.

Her mother reassures her that this is a satisfactory explanation and that she, the mother, has discovered the man who violated her while she was asleep: her father’s stable groom, who had stayed quite often at the fort.

Startled but also relieved that the mystery of her pregnancy has been solved, Julietta declares that she is prepared to marry this man; her mother is aghast and then she apologizes, explaining that her story about the groom was just a test to discover whether Julietta truly knew nothing about the cause of her pregnancy or who the father was.

Mother and daughter reconcile and are united in their determination to handle the decisive moment, should man appear in response to the announcement. The mother promises to convince the father of Julietta’s innocence.

Curtain

​Scene 9: The garden of Julietta’s estate; it is fall.

Julietta relaxes, pensive under the ginkgo tree. She meditates about the absurdity of her situation but allows herself to surrender to the autumnal serenity.

All of a sudden, she panics as she catches sight of Count F., who approaches her and kneels before her gently, touching her skirt. A rapid exchange of his renewed petition of marriage and of her ensuing rejection develops. He uses the lines of the ginkgo song as a lyrical way to convince her of the rightness of their union. She tears herself away (in spite of herself); despondent, she runs into the house and bolts the door.

Devastated, he ponders these events, examining his own character at the same time. He finally decides that he will openly confess to the family that he is the man who has caused Julietta such anguish.

Curtain

Scene 10: In the living room of the townhouse.

Mother and daughter are back in Modena. The mother regrets not having resisted her husband and mentions that he is now sitting in his room, sobbing like a child. Julietta wants to run to him immediately but her mother insists that the father must be the one to come to Julietta and apologize. The Commandant then appears, full of remorse. An emotional scene develops between father and daughter, with endless embraces and kisses. He reassures her again and again how much he loves her and how sorry he is for having treated her unfairly.

Stephan interrupts them and reminds everyone that the child’s father is supposed to appear the next morning at the appointed time.

The curtain falls. Next day:

After a few moments of darkness, the morning sun lights up the room, with the family exchanging a few words about who might appear. The uneasy waiting ends with the clock striking eleven times, a carriage arrives, and Count F. enters the room quickly.

When, after a short misunderstanding, there is no doubt that Count F. is the true father, Julietta is devastated. She experiences his presence at this moment as if the Devil had entered the room; she responds like a fury. Crying out that she would have married anyone but not this man, she flees. Her mother follows her, determined not to allow this to be the final outcome.

In an atmosphere of extreme mutual embarrassment, the Commandant begins to talk about practical matters, should Julietta agree to marry Count F. after all. He explains that a marriage contract would have to stipulate that Count F. must assume  all the obligations of a husband and father but would have to waive all conjugal rights.

The Commandant and Count F. agree to meet at the notary’s office, both hoping that Julietta will concur.

Curtain

​Scene 11: The same living room late at night.

A few months later, the day of the baptism of the child: The Commandant and his wife, and Stephan, obviously relieved, talk about how well the day went, in comparison to the wedding day. They appreciate the generosity of Count F. who has donated twenty-thousand rubles for his child and has made Julietta his heiress. The mother observes that Julietta has glanced at the Count for the first time since the day when she had cursed him as a devil. She hopes that a lasting relationship might still develop.

Curtain

​Scene 12:  Although we seem to be in Julietta’s garden, the atmosphere is altered by the  projection of a ginkgo leaf in the center of the stage, which changes size and color, indicating the passing of the seasons, from spring to fall. Julietta and Count F. free themselves from the weight of their previous experience. They seem to grow beyond the time and space of their earthbound existence by identifying with the words and the world of poets from the early nineteenth to the twentieth century.

Far to the right and left of the stage, Julietta and Count F. can be seen. Each sings of unfortunate past events. When he calls her by her name, Julietta turns and begins to meditate about his first name Pjotr/Peter/ Petrus; she remembers that Jesus forgave Peter and told him to forgive his brother seventy-seven times.

The two begin to walk the illuminated outline of a ginkgo leaf on the floor, towards the central stem of the leaf (stage front/center).

Peter admits that he is not entitled to be forgiven and regrets that his own words do not reach her. He then tries to reach her through the words of the poet and recites Mörike’s “When I find peace by simply gazing at you.”

Julietta responds to this poetry and recites Rilke’s “How can I hold my soul so that it does not lean against you.”

Peter joins the recitation with the verse about the two strings from which one voice can resonate.

Julietta remains in a somber mood but they approach one another, talking to one another, each asking the same question: What did actually happen that day when she saw him and fainted, and he raped her and fathered the child?

Referring to the frailty of the world, Julietta indicates that she is now willing to begin anew.  Arriving at a more comprehensive outlook on life, and acknowledging the evil residing right alongside the good, as it does in all of us, she agrees to live out her days with Peter.

Having both arrived at the central point at the tip of the two lobes, they sing a duet: the song of the ginkgo leaf.

Hand in hand, they walk toward the back of the stage. The bilobed leaf begins to close together at its seam, as they walk. Julietta gently turns and reminds Peter that a shadow will always be with them. They agree that forgetting is not being truthful to one another; they will not suppress their memories but instead become strong enough to bear this burden. Anticipating a blessed life together, they sing Goethe’s Dornburg poem about a day’s beginning, with the blue sky taking over so that the end of the day allows the sun to depart with red and golden hues.

While they are turning again toward the back of the stage, Julietta’s twins appear, pushing the baby carriage. Laughing they point into the carriage and call out “double (the twins) and one (the babe)”, drawing a large ginkgo leaf in the air.

[This end is obviously reminiscent of the Rosenkavalier. The spirit of Hofmannsthal was experienced as living and present during the writing of this opera!]

Curtain

I'm one and double too…

An opera based on Heinrich von Kleist’s The Marquise of O…
​Music: Elizabeth R. Austin
Libretto: Gerhard Austin


1. Intro.

Gerhard has supplied me with a libretto which remains true to Kleist’s fabulous novella, while adding the subtheme, based on Goethe’s famous poem, Ginkgo Biloba. Moving beyond Goethe’s personal intention, this poetic puzzle allows for various associations: this bilobed leaf may reveal a single person, with two sides- it may describe two people growing together in a loving relationship … 

We have a bilingual libretto: German and English. The vocal/piano score is complete; I am halfway through the orchestration, expecting to finish by summer’s end. 

The path ahead means our active search for a theater, professional or educational, which might premiere our opera. 

We are excited about this prospect; unlike my usual caution upon completion of a composition, I am actually feeling very positive about the quality and relevance of the central message of the opera: that of reconciliation.

Elizabeth R. Austin