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Encores and Curtain Calls

We can’t do without a tragedy

‘Garden of Martyrs,’ a dark, new opera, runs Friday & Sunday

“I am ashamed of the (audience) before me ... Are there men to whom, the death of their fellow beings is a spectacle of pleasure, an object of curiosity? ... But you, especially, O women! What has induced you to come to this place?  Is it to wipe away the cold damps of death that trickle down the face of these unfortunate men? ... No, it is not for this. Is it then to behold their anguish, and to look upon it with tearless, eager and longing eyes? Oh! I blush for you, your eyes are full of murder!

— Father Jean Lefebvre de Cheverus,

(In his sermon prior to the execution of Dominic Daley and James Halligan).

In 1805. An ill-matched pair of Irish Catholic immigrants, Dominic Daley and James Halligan, are traveling west along the Springfield Turnpike Road through Wilbraham headed for New York. During their time of passage, one Marcus Lyon is robbed and killed along the same road. They are arrested just prior to crossing into New York State and accused of Lyons’ murder. The two deny any knowledge of the crime, but Laertes Fuller, a 14-year old boy allegedly out hauling logs the same day, identifies them — the only chained pair — in a lineup. Halligan and Daley spend five months in jail and, two days before their trial, are finally allowed to consult with a lawyer. The trial lasts just one day. The men are convicted within minutes of its start. The sentence: to be hanged by the neck until dead on a scaffold on Hospital Hill in the town Northampton on June 5, 1806. On that day, 15,000 outside witnesses added their numbers to the 2,500-member community. As if a brutally brief trial and death by public execution were not reprisal enough, the judge ruled that their remains are to be subjected to medical dissection and “anatomical analysis.”

This summation from Peter F. Stevens of the Boston Irish Reporter:

“In his eloquent close, (defense attorney) Blake intoned: “Pronounce then a verdict against them! Tell them that with all our boasted philanthropy, which embraces every circle on the habitable globe, we have yet no mercy for a wandering and expatriated fugitive from Ireland. That the name of an Irishman is, among us, but another name for a robber and an assassin; that every man’s hand is lifted against him; that when a crime of unexampled atrocity is perpetuated among us, we look around for an Irishman ... and that the moment he is accused, he is presumed to be guilty.’”

Ten years after the execution, a western Massachusetts man makes a “deathbed confession” to the murder of Marcus Lyon; he is the uncle of the critical boy-witness, Laertes Fuller.

This, then, is the searing tale explored in composer Eric Sawyer and librettist Harley Erdman’s new opera, “Garden of Martyrs,” from the highly praised historical novel of the same name by Michael C. White. Sawyer and Erdman previously joined forces to create the Lincoln-based opera “Our American Cousin” several years ago.

While the historical record, “The History of Wilbraham,” archived at www.historic-northampton.org/daleyandhalligan/HNDH-HistoryWillbraham.pdf seems to present, in painful detail, an open-and-shut case of Halligan and Daley’s guilt, the author, librettist and composer clearly lean to the conviction of the incident having been a grave miscarriage of justice, providing the archetypal stuff of which most opera is forged: tragedy. Without this all-important dramatic dynamite, it’s highly unlikely that Erdman and Sawyer would even have bothered to set pen to paper, for what fascination is there in creating an opera that merely sets forth a series of historical happenings?

No, there needs to be a hook, a breath-taking turn of events, a climax that pulls us up short and leaves us gasping. The fact is — artistically at least — we can’t do without tragedy.

With a stellar performance team including University of Massachusetts tenor William Hite, stage director and longtime Metropolitan Opera baritone Vernon Hartman, internationally renowned opera singers Amy Johnson and Keith Phares, tenor Alan Schneider of Northampton and maestro Kevin Rhodes, conductor of the Springfield Symphony, “Garden of Martyrs” has much in its favor.

Extreme as their plight may be, it is not the doomed Daley and Halligan who lie at the epicenter of the musical drama, but a third, more enigmatic figure: a Catholic priest by the name of Father Cheverus, enacted by William Hite, who has fled the revolution in France and to whom Daley’s wife, Fiona, comes to plead for his spiritual intercession.

Both video and audio segments of the piece, sung to piano accompaniment, are accessible at the production website: http://thegardenofmartyrsopera.com/performanc e-test. Listening to these, the power and professionalism of the various cast members becomes readily evident, as well as the gravity and intensity of the subject matter itself. The handful of video and audio clips will also yield a good taste of Sawyer’s sober and fervent style; it is music alternately serene and declamatory, tending more toward the lyrical in choral contexts and more austere in solo and small ensembles.

Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Sawyer hardly seems the kind of soul to be drawn to the barely concealed barbarism of “Garden of Martyrs.” We spoke recently about his thoughts on the opera.

JM: I can’t imagine you could be too much more excited than you must be now — this must be the biggest thing you’ve done, isn’t it?

ES: Well, it’s probably the same size as (Sawyer’s previous opera) “Our American Cousin.” But somehow, as you know, it’s always the thing that you’re writing at the moment. But, you’re right, it would hard for it to be more exciting.

JM: What was (author) Michael White’s response?

ES: Michael White’s been very supportive. He’ll be at the premiere on Friday. He’s been at two out of the three workshops we’ve did of the three acts. And from the beginning he said, “I’m very enthusiastic about this and I don’t want to interfere in any way other than to come and see it when it happens.”

JM: Even though he wrote a book about it, it is an event which you could have approached on your own from a completely different angle, couldn’t you?

ES: We could have, but his way of approaching really is operatic; it is his take on the story that we’re using. The characters that he created in Daley and Halligan are men who are not well known historically ... their eloquent words at the end are documented, along with a few facts about their backgrounds, but not very much. But he really created the characters we used in the opera.

JM: Were there any safeguards in the eventuality that, after all your and Harley’s hard work on the opera, Michael White did not approve of what you had done?

ES: Well, I had to sort of make a judgment call. “Our American Cousin” was an original piece of work, so we didn’t have to worry about sources, even for the title, which was a play Lincoln was watching, which is in the public domain. In this case, Michael White was so generous; he did give us in writing that we could use it and make an opera out of it. And, for more than legal reasons, we were very concerned when he first came to our workshop if he would like what we did, or if he thought we were taking too many liberties, but he seemed to have no such concerns. I think that the spirit of what we’ve done to the story is very faithful to his book.

The performances will be at the Academy of Music, 274 Main St., Northampton, on Friday, Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday, Sept. 22, at 3 p.m.

Tickets: $50, $40, $30, $20 (students 50 percent discount directly through the box office)

Buy tickets online from the Academy of Music box office, www.academyofmusictheatre.com or call 413-584- 9032 ext. 105. The box office hours are Tuesday through Friday, 3 to 6 p.m. You may telephone at any time and leave a message. The box office will return your call.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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