Crazy Over LoveFriday, August 18, 2017
Guest Blog by Soprano Dory Hayley
Joy in Abandonment
Artistic Co-Director, Blueridge Chamber Music Festival
The third concert of the Blueridge Chamber Music Festival features two classic stories of abandonment and betrayal. We started out with Peter Maxwell Davies’ deliciously creepy chamber opera, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, which I had been dying for years to sing. Rather than rounding out the program with instrumental works, Alejandro Ochoa and I decided to pair it with Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos because of their similar thematic material. We commissioned costumes from the inimitable Diane Park and made the concert the central “catastrophic event” of our “Red Wedding” themed 2017 season.
When I got around to learning the music several months later, though, I thought to myself, oh dear: this program is a bit problematic from a feminist perspective….
Haydn’s scene tells the story of Ariadne, who is left in charge of her father Minos’ impenetrable labyrinth. When Theseus comes to slay the Minotaur of the labyrinth, Ariadne falls in love with him, and helps him navigate the maze with a ball of string. They escape together by sea. But in Haydn’s piece, Ariadne awakes on the island of Naxos to find that Theseus has abandoned her and sailed away.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ chamber opera tells the story of a real woman who lived in Australia in the mid-19th century and became a model for Dickens’ Miss Havisham. Miss Donnithorne is engaged to be married to a naval officer, but he disappears on the day of the wedding. She is so distraught that she lives for the rest of her life indoors, in her wedding dress, with the mouldering wedding cake laid out on the table.
At first glance, these are two portraits of powerless victims, their lives rendered meaningless by the loss of their male partners. But as I delved deeper into the scores, I realized that both women react to a traumatic loss with remarkable strength.
Ariadne never really loses composure in the face of abandonment. Her noble, measured music remains solidly in the middle register of the voice throughout. Both her arias are in major keys, and even the heated final allegro ends with an optimistic major cadence. Perhaps this hints at the fact that Ariadne does not mourn the loss of Theseus for long. She ends up marrying Dionysus and having eleven children, and her wedding crown becomes the constellation Corona Borealis.
Miss Donnithorne, on the other hand, doesn’t move on, ever. She commits herself 100% to her life of abandonment. Her lover himself has become nothing more than an object…what really interests her is the atmosphere of suspension in time, and the symbols of her fixation: the moon, the sea, and especially the wedding cake. For me, the key to the opera is a line near the end: “I did not think that love might last so long.”
Through her dogged commitment to madness and solitude she has turned a flimsy youthful affection into a powerful and devoted act of performance art. Miss Donnithorne bears her fate with anger and petulance, but also with rigour and zeal. She’s ruining her own life and relishing every moment of it. It’s incredible fun to play this character, because you don’t have to feel sorry for her. You just ride her wave of joy in her own destruction.