Caedmon

 

Chamber opera in one act after the play One Thing More by Christopher Fry  

 

Commissioned in September 1988 by the Garden Venture at the Royal Opera House with funds made available by the Arts Council of Great Britain and sponsored by readers of the Independent newspaper 

 

6 performances in May 1989 at the Donmar Warehouse, London as part of the London International Opera Festival 

 

In his Ecclesiastical History the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede recounts how, in the year 664, Caedmon was inspired by a dream to compose his first piece of poetry, the famous 'Caedmon's Hymn'. In his play One Thing More, Christopher Fry has construed a life of Caedmon which takes this divine enlightenment as its central incident and relates it to events in Caedmon's past life. The theme of the play is that of suffering and anguish which, when redeemed by love, enable the soul to be freed of dread and guilt: previously tongue-tied, Caedmon can express his new-found love for creation in poetry and music.  Libretto

 

The action of the opera takes place at the monastery of Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast, and is narrated by the Venerable Bede. Outside the monastery walls, the farmworkers - Joddy, Kern, the Widow, with their Overman - assemble before dawn as they prepare for work. The Widow bemoans the recent loss of her husband, a stableman, while the others remark on the appearance of a stranger in the area. No-one knows who he is, or what he is doing, save that he is regularly spotted before dawn listening to the singing of Prime from the monastery. Kern points out that the singing has become quite special since the arrival of a new novice and as Prime is heard in the distance the Overman tells of the cave he has found where the stranger sleeps. As the sun comes up Caedmon is indeed revealed listening to the music which grows, as he does, ever more animated. When the Widow tries to question him he only remarks on the beauty of the sun and the sound of the singing. Caedmon tries to limp off - he has a wound, we learn - but the Overman detains him. Painfully, Caedmon reveals that he has spent his working life as a professional soldier and gives as a reason for his being in the area an obscure reference to someone he has never known. The Overman would know more, offers him nonetheless the post of Stableman.

The scene that follows takes place in the monastery cloister. It is evening and the Abbess Hilda reflects on the turmoil caused by the Synod of Whitby which has just ended. She is more concerned with the welfare of the Novice who confesses that she is deeply troubled by thoughts of her parents - although she has never known them. Her mother died when she was born and no-one ever spoke of her father; these thoughts cause her much agony, particularly in the early morning during the singing of Prime. The Abbess comforts her.

The third scene takes place in the Great Barn, late on the day of the solar eclipse of that year. The farmworkers remark on the awesomeness of the event, and their sombre mood is only dispelled by the flowing ale and their attempts at singing: Joddy improvises badly, Kern shows off his bawdy humour and the Overman leads everyone in a rousing drinking song. They try to persuade Caedmon to sing, but withdrawn as usual, words fail him. As the Widow sings a gentle lullaby the ale takes its effect and the scene dissolves into sleep.

Caedmon dreams. A Person appears to him. He does not reveal who he is but suggests he might be part of Caedmon himself. He asks why Caedmon was so unwilling to sing: why he doesn't leave his shell of silence and join the music of life. He reminds him of his youth. A Girl now appears - she looks very like the Novice Nun, for she is her mother - the girl whom Caedmon once loved. They remember their days of bliss together before she too urges Caedmon to sing. The vision fades and with considerable new-found virtuosity, Caedmon sings of the beginning of created things. He awakes to the singing of Prime and hears above the other voices the singing of the Novice, the music of which he now feels to be part. Wondrously, he completes his verses. Overhearing him, the Overman brings this transformation to the attention of the Abbess, who with the Prior and the Precentor hail his awakening as a miracle: Caedmon's wound is healed. The Abbess hints that a monastic life awaits him, and the Precentor remembers an earlier encounter with him as they tended together the wounded on the battlefield.

An instrumental interlude leads to the last scene in the monastery where Caedmon, now an aged monk, is lying on his palet, calmly awaiting death. He sings a short verse, one thing more, while the night's office of Compline is heard from the Chapel.

 

The original performers

Caedmon  - Christopher Gillett

Overman/Person in the Dream  - Richard Lloyd Morgan

Abbess/Widow - Philippa Dames-Longworth

Novice/Girl in the Dream - Dawn Williamson

Kern/Precentor - Stuart Harling

Joddy/Prior - Gordon Wilson

 

Nancy Ruffer [flute/piccolo], Joseph Saunders [oboe/cor anglais], Chris Craker [clarinets], David Cox [horn], Isobel Frayling-Cork [harp], Roland Roberts [violin], Rebecca Wexler [viola], Nick Roberts [cello]

 

Conductor Edward Lambert

Director Andrew Sinclair

Designer Robin Auld 

 

Live recording available at Music Preserved sound archive

CAST

 

THE VENERABLE BEDE, spoken

soprano -  THE NOVICE NUN & THE GIRL IN THE DREAM,

mezzo-soprano - THE WIDOW & THE ABBESS HILDA

tenor - CAEDMON

tenor - JODDY & THE PRIOR 

baritone - THE OVERMAN & PERSON IN THE DREAM 

bass -  KERN & THE PRECENTOR

 

Off-stage voices of nuns and monks - pre-recorded by members of the cast

Score

Christopher Fry (1907-2005)

One of the most celebrated playwrights of the mid-20th century, regarded as the Shakespeare of his time for his poetry and wit. While a young teacher, helped to found the Tunbridge Wells Repertory Players in 1932, and directed the English premiere there of Bernard Shaw's Village Wooing in 1934. Two years later, Fry married Phyllis Hart, a journalist. In 1939 Fry left teaching to become the artistic director of the Oxford Playhouse, and in the same year published his first play, The Boy with a Cart. But his theatrical career was abruptly overtaken by World War II. A Quaker and a pacifist, Fry served four years with the Pioneer Corps fighting fires and dealing with bomb damage on the Liverpool docks. After the war, his hopeful comedies led a resurgence in verse drama in English, especially the four "seasonal comedies": The Lady's Not for Burning ("Spring," 1948), Venus Observed ("Autumn," 1949), The Dark Is Light Enough ("Winter," 1954) and A Yard of Sun ("Summer," 1970). He also wrote religious dramas in verse such as The Firstborn (1946), Thor with Angels (1948) and A Sleep of Prisoners (1951), and several important dramatic translations such as Ring Round the Moon (1950) and The Lark (1955) by Jean Anouilh and Tiger at the Gates (1955) by Jean Giraudoux. Fry's plays attracted some of the era's best classical actors, including Paul Scofield in A Phoenix Too Frequent (1946), John Gielgud in The Lady's Not for Burning and Laurence Olivier in Venus Observed.