PROSERPINA: TWO ONE-ACT OPERAS
by Goethe/Seckendorff (1777) and Goethe/Botelho (2016)
By Annie Janeiro Randall
Proserpina's StoryTonight's performance tells the story of Proserpina in two radically different operatic versions: the first by Karl v. Seckendorff on a text by Goethe (1777), and the second by Paul J. Botelho on the same Goethe text (2016). The German author's text alludes throughout to its source material: ancient Homeric and Ovidian myths of Persephone (Greek) and Proserpina (Roman). The basic outline of the centuries-old story is as follows: Proserpina, teenaged daughter of Jupiter and Ceres, plays with her friends in a field, gathering flowers. Suddenly, a volcano erupts to reveal Pluto, King of Hades, charging toward them with four black horses. Pluto overpowers Proserpina, tearing her away from her friends, fleeing with her on his chariot to his bleak underworld kingdom. She is held against her will, surrounded by souls of the dead, to become Pluto's "wife" and queen of the underworld. There she eats some pomegranate seeds, not realizing that eating the fruit will trap her in Hades forever. Proserpina's mother, Ceres, scorches the earth looking for her daughter and wreaks such devastation on the landscape that Jupiter intervenes, bargaining with Pluto to release Proserpina to her mother for six months of each year so that the barren earth might regenerate itself after Ceres' scourges.
Goethe's text concentrates on only one part of this story: the horrific moment when Proserpina fully realizes where she is and how she got there. Readers of Proserpina: A Monodrama, first published in the February 1778 issue of the journal Der Teutsche Merkur, were plunged without prologue directly into Proserpina's turmoil, as told in her own voice rather than that of a narrator. Seckendorff follows the text faithfully and has composed thirty-one sections of orchestral and choral music that correspond exactly to the sections of Goethe's text. Paul J. Botelho's composition also follows Goethe's text, if not as discernibly the words themselves. Botelho, like Seckendorff, attends to the work's dark mood shifts and long dramatic arc, but with electro-acoustic musical tools that could not have been imagined in the late eighteenth century.
Modern Premiere of Goethe's Experimental MonodramaOn 14 October 2016 Bucknell University's Weis Center for the Performing Arts presents the modern premiere of Goethe and Seckendorff's Proserpina (1777). Its one and only performance prior to 2016 was in 1778 as a commemorative birthday piece for Weimar's Princess Luise. Though the original orchestral parts have been lost, they have been restored by Annie Randall and Christian Humcke from the composer's original orchestral manuscript, also thought to be lost. Randall discovered Seckendorff's manuscript in the archives of the Grossherzoglich Hessische Hofbibliothek in 1994 during the course of her research on Weimar's musical culture in the mid-1770s. Twenty-two years later, this work—a fully realized "monodrama" of the late eighteenth century—can finally receive the critical attention it deserves, aided by Randall and Humcke's fully restored score and parts alongside the now digitally-available manuscript (ULB Darmstadt, Mus-Ms-1013).
Goethe's "monodrama in one act" was one of a handful of sensational musico-dramatic star vehicles that rode the wave of German literature's Sturm und Drang in the 1770s and 1780s. Others were Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Pygmalion, Anton Benda's Ariadne auf Naxos, and Franz Beck's Pandora (performed, respectively, in 1770, 1775, and 1789). Each explores the continuum (or is it a minefield?) between speech and song, asking its soloists to declaim at full throttle: speaking, singing, or any/everything in between. Of particular interest are passages of speech in which the protagonist speaks rhythmically over orchestral underscoring. Equally intriguing are the moments when Proserpina's words are precisely punctuated by orchestral responses. The "arias" are short and few in number; clearly, unlike opera, such lyricism was not the intended centerpiece of such works. Rather, "pure song" seems to serve as an ethereal contrast to the spoken portions which sound, at times, loud, raw, and brutal, and at other times, whispered and desperate.
Given the Weimar court circle's habit of close collaboration on musical and theatrical works, it is probable that Goethe worked closely with Seckendorff and soprano soloist, Corona Schröter, to produce this highly nuanced and experimental musico-dramatic setting of his Proserpina text. Staking speech and song at extreme ends of the declamatory spectrum, Goethe, Seckendorff, and Schröter seemed determined to wring maximum expression from the vast territory between the two. The orchestra is also a field for experiment, playing multiple roles: first, as a proto-Wagnerian narrator of events, later as an extension of Proserpina's thoughts and emotions, and, later still, as Proserpina's antagonist, allied with the chorus of the Damned against her.
World Premiere of Botelho's Proserpina (2016)Paul J. Botelho's Proserpina (2016) is an opera for solo voice, chorus, and electro-acoustic fixed media, to be performed directly following Seckendorff's Proserpina (1777). Though Proserpina (2016) is a freestanding composition that can be staged either alone or in tandem with Proserpina (1777), when the two are performed together audiences will inevitably perceive profound through-lines in both works. Botelho's piece consciously acknowledges and extends the spirit of vocal and theatrical experimentation that is so clearly present in Goethe and Seckendorff's piece. And just as Proserpina (1777) benefited greatly from the creative collaboration of Corona Schröter (Weimar's principal singer and actress who starred in the first performance), Botelho's work draws upon Tiffany DuMouchelle's rich experience with contemporary vocal and theatrical technique, thus mirroring the earlier collaboration. Indeed, the same singer in both pieces represents an intentional link between the two, undermining assumptions of time and space: can this be the same person, trapped in the same place, by the same tormentor, surrounded by the same dead souls?
Audiences will also perceive stark differences between the two pieces. While Goethe and Seckendorff spectacularly foregrounded Proserpina's own point of view and her own words (historically, a new sense of agency), the audience is still positioned at a psychological distance from her, looking on, almost voyeuristically. Paul Botelho's piece, in contrast, rivets attention on Proserpina's physical voice and her psychological state as expressed through extended vocal technique and electro-acoustic fixed media; Botelho attempts to collapse the distance of the earlier work and position the audience within her terrified and terrorized psyche as she realizes the full import of her situation. Proserpina's / Goethe's words are collaterally damaged in the process, but they are still words, still Proserpina's centuries-old text, no matter how mangled and flayed by terror. Or are they?