Libretto writing: Melisande and Poison Ivy

I’ve been working on adapting Saki (H. H. Munro)’s short story “Tobermory” as a (darkly) comic libretto. In one scene, a character sings the rather lugubrious song “Melisande, In the Wood,” in which composer Alma Goetz set text by Ethel Clifford.

Cover page of sheet music for "Melisande in the Woods"

The piece was published in 1902 and was apparently very popular. Victor put  out a recording of it in 1924 featuring singer Edmund Goulding and pianist Clara Novello Davies. I can’t find that particular recording, but you can hear Essie Ackland singing it on an HMV recording from 1929 on YouTube; there are a few other recordings of it there as well.

However, the song and words are still under UK copyright, so for my adaptation of “Tobermory” I needed to write something to replace it. The composer asked for something very similar in form and style. I wrote three new texts: the first was very much in keeping with the original:

“Melisande, in the Cave”
Look down, look down beneath the stone, Melisande,
and search for your cast-off ring.
With your eyes for tears and your mouth for song
and your fear-clipped little wings.

Bend down, bend down beneath the stone, Melisande,
do you see the ring you rejected?
Only you can know your own truths, Melisande,
and why you alone are disaffected.
Disaffected, suspected, Melisande,
so disaffected.

Breathe deep, breathe deep of the stone, Melisande,
of the still air and the wet breathe deep.
One day you will lie amid stone, Melisande,
and your husband and child will weep.

For the second, I tried to capture a bit of Saki’s language from other stories written around the same time as “Tobermory.”

“Melisande of the Green”
Melisande, Melisande, I can see your tears:
you are a feral girl, full of wildness and fears.
Melisande, Melisande, you speak so few words:
you are a forest cat, preying on little birds.

Woman of the woods, sister of the stream,
you confound us, Melisande.
Walking in the castle, long hair afloat,
have we all just been conned?
Are you a goblin or werewolf, mythic?
You confuse us, Melisande

Melisande, Melisande, lady of the green,
you have hidden depths, natural powers, all unseen.
Melisande, Melisande, the marsh and field
bend to your touch as your magic is revealed.

As I wrote this second text, I began to think of Melisande as a kind of proto-Poison Ivy.

Melisande
Ivy is shown wrapped with ivy and other green leaves.
Poison Ivy

She’s got the long hair and comes from a botanically rich environment and causes conflict between men. Maybe she’s also related to Swamp Thing, being “of the green.”

My third text was entirely satirical, imagining Melisande among  the Victorian or Edwardian society ladies of Saki’s story, out of her depth trying to furnish Golaud’s dreary castle:

“Melisande, in the Drawing Room”
Do sit, do sit down, dear Melisande
and take some tea with sugar.
With your trembling pinkies and blinking eyes,
you look quite snookered!

Do tell, do tell us all, Melisande,
did you make a terrible bargain?
You are new to society, Melisande, quite new,
Perhaps you were confused by the jargon?
It is easy to be taken in, Melisande,
cheated, cheated.

Do drink, do drink some sherry, Melisande.
We all do when it’s bleak.
It has happened before, dear Melisande,
someone’s always selling fake antiques.

The composer liked the very close mimicking of the first song, so that’s what we’ll use in the opera. The second and third texts are available if anyone wants to set them or use them for anything–contact me for details! I’d actually love to write a suite of texts for songs that intertwine comic heroes and villains with well-known operatic or other musical tropes.

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