About this work:
Maurice Maeterlinck wrote Sister Beatrice sometime before 1900 as an opera libretto. Bernard Miall mentions that Maeterlinck wrote it with the idea that M. Gilkas would write the music, but it was published as a play without music in 1902 and first produced at the New Theatre in New York in March of 1910. The Russian composer Alexandre Gretschaninoff immediately set it as an opera, and it was produced at the Paris Opera Comique in 1912, but the opera is no longer available.
Sister Beatrice is Maeterlinck’s adaptation of the old English legend that inspired John Davidson to write the poem “The Ballad of a Nun.” My setting of Sister Beatrice is in English, and I have prepared my own libretto from the original French and from Bernard Miall’s 1901 English translation.
The story is set in a 13th century French convent. At the beginning of the opera (Scene I) Sister Beatrice is praying to the statue of the Virgin. She confesses that she is about to commit mortal sin, that she is going to leave the convent with Prince Bellidor who told her that he loved her. She is torn between her love for the Virgin and her love for the prince. When the prince arrives he uses 17th century musical language to seduce Beatrice into coming with him. He removes her veil and her mantle which she leaves at the foot of the statue of the Virgin, and they run off together.
Immediately after they leave, (Scene II) the statue of the Virgin comes alive. She puts on the veil and mantle Sister Beatrice left on the floor and assumes Sister Beatrice’s duty of giving alms to the poor. Allette, a young girl, comes to the door and says shyly that the “poor brothers” are not coming because they saw Sister Beatrice riding away with the prince. The Virgin kisses Allette, and soon Allette believes that the Virgin is Sister Beatrice. They hear a chorus of pilgrims approaching. The pilgrims sing a medieval pilgrim song with words that (as pilgrim songs do) praise the Virgin, but they do not realize that they are singing it to the Virgin herself. The Virgin, dressed as Sister Beatrice, forgives all their sins and gives them garments that turn into radiant jewel-covered robes.
After the pilgrims leave the Abbess reproaches Sister Beatrice for forgetting to ring the matin bells, and when she notices the statue of the Virgin is gone she blames Sister Beatrice for not guarding her properly. Furthermore the Abbess notices that Sister Beatrice’s garments have a glow about them. She removes Sister Beatrice’s veil and mantle and condemns Sister Beatrice for “stealing the image” of the Virgin. A chorus of nuns joins her as they command Sister Beatrice to speak, but she does not answer. They call the Priest who tells the nuns to take off their belts and beat Sister Beatrice with the rods of penance. They take her offstage. Immediately there is a chaotic cacophony from which emerges a six voice setting of the “Ave Maris Stella.” The nuns enter holding flowers and the stage is full of flowers. Sister Beatrice turned their belts and rods into flowers. Everyone proclaims that Sister Beatrice is holy.
Twenty-five years pass and Scene III looks exactly like the end of Scene I—the statue of the Virgin is in place, and Sister Beatrice’s veil and mantle are on the floor. It is winter. Sister Beatrice, now old and sick enters the convent and throws herself at the foot of the statue. She tells the statue of the Virgin what has happened to her, the scandal that her life became out in the world, and that she has come back to the convent to die. She finds the veil and mantle and puts them on. The sisters enter and they think that she has aged overnight. They also notice that the statue of the Virgin has returned to them.
Sister Beatrice is confused. She asks her sisters to pardon her. She tells them that she left the convent with Prince Bellidor 25 years ago, that he left her after three months, that she became a prostitute, that three of her children died and that she killed her fourth child herself so it wouldn’t suffer.
The sisters do not believe her because they know Sister Beatrice was with them every day. Sister Beatrice does not understand why the sisters are not angry with her. The opera ends with her words “I have lived in a world where I did not understand the aims of hate and misery, and now I die in another world where I do not understand the aims of mercy and love.”
The opera has about 90 minutes of music. It is scored for 6 sopranos (one is a child), 4 mezzo sopranos, tenor, bass-baritone, flute, clarinet, percussion, cello, and piano. Much of the music is tonal, most of it is influenced by medieval music, and everything is written in conventional notation and conventional meter.
Published by Seesaw Music and available through Subito Music.
Version: Revised in 2006
Year composed: 2003
Ensemble type: Opera/Theater:Chamber Opera, Two or More Singers
Instrumentation: 1 Flute, 1 Clarinet, 1 Percussion (General), 1 Piano, 1 Cello, ,6 Soprano soloist(s), ,4 Mezzo-Soprano soloist(s), ,1 Tenor soloist(s), ,1 Bass-Baritone soloist(s), 4 Other choral Part(s)
Instrumentation notes: The percussion part includes marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, temple blocks, tubular bells, conga drums, snare drum, and side drum. All the instruments can be played by one player.