Sung in English
World Premiere by The Santa Fe Opera, July 29.1995

John Ruskin, Baritone
Effie Gray, Soprano
John Everett Millais, Tenor
Mrs. Ruskin, Mezzo-soprano
Mrs. La Touche, Soprano
Rose La Touche, Mute Role
Mr. Ruskin, Bass
Mr. Gray, Tenor
Mrs. Gray, Mezzo-soprano
Forman, Tenor
A Judge, Bass

Modern Painters tells the story of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin. (1819-1900), who was England's most influential taste-maker during the second half of the 19th century. Immensely prolific, wide-ranging in his interests, Ruskin caught the imagination of the public with his impassioned defense of historic monuments, the coloristic paintings of Turner and the medievalizing canvases of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. The industrial age (which he loathed) and Venice (which he loved) were subjects that finally stirred within him far deeper emotional responses than his wife Effie. But their unconsummated marriage was only a chapter in a complex and curious life.

Modern Painters is the title of Ruskin's most famous work, a five- volume extravaganza that spanned much of his life. More than a study of painting, it was Ruskin's grand attempt to devise intricate formulas to describe nature, people, ideas and relationships. Ruskin's tragedy was that he could nor bring his brilliant mind to the disorder and confusion in his own life. The tortured relationships he forged with his mother, his wife, and finally and most painfully, a 13 year old girl with whom he became obsessed, are at the heart of the opera.

John Ruskin's legendary work, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, provides the underlying structure of the opera. In the course of exploring the principles behind an architecture that dignifies and ennobles public life, Ruskin identified seven attributes necessary for the creation of the perfect work of art: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, and Obedience. These concepts. loosely interpreted, hover in the background of the two-act opera in seven scenes.

Time: Between 1850 and 1900

ACT I

SCENE 1: A church in London. Ruskin, Foreman, Workers .

Perched on a spire, Ruskin sketches a church as it is demolished beneath him by a crew of workers. As the workers taunt him, he implores them to compare the virtues of the historic church to the impoverished monuments of the modern age, "Workers of England. Look around you."

SCENE 2: (In two parts) A Wedding Banquet in the Ruskin Home. Ruskin, Effie Gray, Mr. and Mrs. Ruskin, Mr. and Mrs. Gray.

Ruskin celebrates his wedding to Effie Gray in the home of his parents. For Effie's benefit, Ruskin's meddlesome mother offers the ingredients of happiness in the aria, "Stewed Trout," his favorite meal. John's toast, "I dreamt of a woman like an angel," leads into the Wedding night. Effie dreams of a new life, "Galleries in the day, parties at night, that's my version of art and life." As she waits for her husband, he keeps to himself, reading from his own book a description of feminine perfection embodied in the Renaissance tomb of Ilaria di Caretto. "She lies on a pillow, a hound, at her feet."

SCENE 3: Venice. Effie, Ruskin, Millais, Chorus.

A "Gondola Ballet." Tourists sing fragments from Ruskin's "Stones of Venice" as Millais steps into view. The rift between Ruskin and his wife becomes visible in a trio in which Ruskin speaks of art, as Effie and Millais discover common feelings. "What an interesting man." When the couple departs, Millais is left with a dream of rescue, "In days gone by, I'd have a steed."

SCENE 4: A Pre-Raphaelite salon the 1850s. Ruskin, Effie, Millais, Chorus.

At a major exhibition of their most recent paintings, the Pre-Raphaelites state their credo in the "Modern painter" chorus. After Effie sings of her great unhappiness, Ruskin praises Millais, "The cool eye, the steady hand, Millais, you honor England." Millais sings of his predicament, "He chills me with his words" and his feelings for Effie.

ACT II

SCENE 5: Turner's funeral, many years later. Chorus, Ruskin, Effie, Millais, Judge.

As a women's chorus sings of light, a brooding Ruskin hears his words and reviews his life, "I invented formulas to understand the world and everything in it." His mind wanders back in time to his great humiliation, the libel case brought by the painter Whistler in 1878 whom Ruskin had accused of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Recovering, he sees Rose La Touche for the first time. "Can it be? Is this real? So sweet a face, such angel grace."

SCENE 6: Millais' studio. Millais and his wife Effie, Mrs. La Touche and her daughter Rose.

Effie and Millais are married with several young children. Millais sings of his philosophy, "What good is world renown a hundred years hence?" as Effie quiets their children with a fairy tale. "Dame Wiggins of Lee was a worthy old soul." Mrs. La Touche is announced. bringing news of Ruskin's intent to marry her daughter. Effie sings of revenge.

SCENE 7: Mr. Ruskin's teahouse. Ruskin, a Student, Chorus.

Workers arrive to hear Ruskin lecture on beauty. As he defiles the Turner landscape on his easel with the mills and smokestacks of the modern age, "What else does a modern town need to be complete?" the workers sing of their despair. But, drifting into madness, Ruskin finds himself alone on stage. The opera concludes with Ruskin singing about all he had hoped to accomplish in his life, "I want to hear the universe and sound the clouds."

— Manuela Hoelterhof


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Last modified 1994