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Riders to the Sea

(chamber opera)

Riders to the Sea is a one-act opera set in the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. It uses John M. Synge's play of the same name as the libretto. The central character is Maurya, an old woman who, as the opera opens, has already lost her husband, father-in-law and four sons to the sea. A fifth son, Michael, is missing at sea, but until his body is found she refuses to believe he is gone. The action takes place in one afternoon in her cottage.

As the curtain rises, her daughters, Cathleen and Nora, are discussing whether the bundle of clothes taken from a drowned man in Donegal and just given to Nora by the local priest could be Michael's. When they hear their mother about to enter the room, they hide the bundle without opening it. Maurya's sixth and last son, Bartley, is about to take two horses to sell at the Galway fair, across the sea. Because of the fierce wind blowing, Maurya begs him not to go, but he is adamant and makes his preparations to ride the red mare along the shore to the boat, with the gray pony behind him. Maurya refuses to give him her blessing, and he leaves in sorrow. The sisters berate their mother and ask her to follow him, both to give him her blessing and to deliver the bread they had baked but forgotten to give him. Maurya acquiesces and goes out.

While she is gone, the girls open the hidden bundle of clothes and identify them as Michael's. Interrupted by Maurya's return, they again hide the clothes. She is in an extremely agitated state, having seen Bartley riding the red mare to the sea followed by "the gray pony, and there was Michael upon it - with fine clothes on him, and new shoes on his feet." To Maurya this "vision" portends disaster, believing as she does that gray is the color of death and that the newly departed are given new clothes and shoes. She had been unable to call out to Bartley and give him her blessing or the bread, and now indulges in a long lamentation on the deaths of her husband, father-in-law and four other sons, one of whom was brought in, "in the half of a red sail, and water dripping out of it—it was a dry day, Nora and leaving a track to the door." As she is recounting all of this, there is a commotion down by the shore and neighbors come in carrying Bartley's body on a plank with "water dripping out of it and leaving a track by the big stones."

Confirming her prescient fears, she is told that the gray pony knocked Bartley off the red mare and into the sea. After Cathleen gently hands her Michael's clothes, Maurya gradually achieves a transcendent acceptance, both poignant and ennobling, of these almost unbearable tragedies. With becalming strength, she utters her valedictory, closing with, "No man at all can be living for ever and we must be satisfied." She then kneels by the bier the curtain falls.

-Marga Richter

The libretto comes with the CD.



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