Set in Norfolk, England in July, 1377, Christine Carpenter is to renounce her family, fiancé and freedom, to become an anchoress, immured in a cell within the church walls. Her fiancé Robert tries to shake her composure but Christine confesses and sings of rumours and echoes of spiritual truth, believing she has a divine vision of the world. But the Priest warns her of the Devil’s illusions. Distraught, she rejects the vision. A travelling priest urges people to support the Peasants’ Revolt. Christine is heard crying to be released from her cell. The Bishop refuses the appeals of her family and Robert joins the Peasants’ Revolt. Christine loses her sanity, speaking of two Gods not one and is left in isolation.
‘Caritas’ is in two acts, the first consisting of 12 short scenes, the second being a continuous scena.
The overall form of the opera retains the architecture of Wesker’s stage play, but alters the proportions, in order to create a musically dynamic form. While each scene of the first act is centred around a specific pitch, the second act is a Passacaglia, whose ‘ground’ is a Cantus Firmus, each repetition of which begins on a different note from those of its previous statements. These large-scale architectural features are both reflected in, and derived from, the musical material itself.
The opera begins with a chorus singing ‘Alleluia te martyrum’, the chant used at ceremonies of enclosure for anchorites and anchoresses. The ‘ground’ of Act Two, whose repetitions symbolise Christine Carpenter’s incarceration and, through its tendency to ascend, comments ironically on the loss of her earlier hope and faith, is a transformation of this initial chant and, therefore, makes a dramatic/contextual statement in itself. At the climax, when Christine has lost her reason, the chant’s final transformation into recorded vocal noise not only illustrates her tragedy, but also objectifies this (adding another perspective) by no longer being ‘live’ and thereby underlines our sense of her isolation.
Throughout, particular intervals are used for characterisation. The Bishop’s first vocal entry introduces the fateful tritone (symbol of Satan in mediaeval music theory) into the proceedings; although Wesker is clear that the Bishop is not an ‘evil’ man, merely a landowner-churchman of his time doing his duty, the music prophesies what will come to be Christine’s view of him. Christine herself is represented by the major 3rd, particularly ascending and this is reflected in the overall pitch structure of the first act. Minor roles also receive similar musical treatment, the tax collector singing chromatic scales with ‘ordinary’ word-setting------ an illustration of his lack of imagination! The children who tease, and then taunt, Christine sing a refrain which becomes increasingly threatening during the course of the work. In Act Two, their voices are heard recorded (they no longer appear), as does the voice of Christine’s dead lover, Robert Lonle. The perpetually receding external world of Act One is made literal by the separation between Christine and the recorded ( and de-humanised) voices of other characters in the drama.
When Christine enters her cell at the close of her first scene, she sings a simple song, as she devotes her life to faith, charity and humility. At the end of the opera, she no longer has the power of song, a solo oboe echoing her melody now, above the E pedal (which began the opera), and the music dies away harmonically and melodically unresolved. Christine mutters: ‘this is a wall…and this is a wall’ several times over, even the orchestra having fallen silent.
Writing this note in the early 21st century (a decade after ‘Caritas’), it seems to me that the ‘message’ of the original play, which is also the premise upon which the opera is built, is more stark than ever. Arnold Wesker felt impelled to write the play on account of his concerns regarding the nature of unquestioning dogma and its effect, not only on the believer, but also on the lives of others. With its progression from light to darkness by means of a straightforward ‘external’ narrative which transforms into an ‘inner’ psychological state, the opera, I hope, acts as a warning that, three hundred years after the century which saw the ‘light’ in the guise of (late) Shakespeare, Donne, Cervantes, Galileo, Kepler, Leibniz, Newton, Spinoza, Locke, Hobbes, Milton, Purcell, Monteverdi and Wren, we ignore such advances in thought and reason at our peril.
© Robert Saxton, 2002