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Balestrini, Nassim Winnie. From Fiction to Libretto: Irving, Hawthorne, and James as Opera.

Balestrini, Nassim Winnie. From Fiction to Libretto: Irving, Hawthorne, and James as Opera. Frankfort am Main: Peter Lang. 2005. 582 pp. $95.95.

A theme, transformation, that Hawthorne never tired of treating lies at the heart of Professor Balestrini's thoroughgoing and pioneering study of how "Rip van Winkle," The Scarlet Letter, and Washington Square found new, and often radically different, life as plays and libretti for operas. For the three works chosen for treatment, Professor Balestrini traces the reception history as a work of fiction and then turns to representative adaptations of each as drama and then as opera. Selection proved imperative, no doubt, because she tallied approximately eighty dramatic or operatic versions of both Irving's tale and Hawthorne's most celebrated romance. She was guided in her selections both by the artistic merit and the popularity of the adaptations. For example, an obvious choice was Joseph Jefferson's transformation of Rip van Winkle into a character that allowed him to appear at his histrionic best. Since she is interested in popular and scholarly reaction to dramatic or operatic adaptations, she provides reception histories for the derivative works chosen for her study. The result of her method is a richly informed account of the cultural, social, and artistic forces underlying the impact on the nation of the three works of original American fiction and their transformations.

My comments, for self-evident reasons, will focus on her discussion of The Scarlet Letter and the dramatic or operatic works it inspired. How contemporary reviewers and later scholars viewed Hawthorne's tale of Puritan New England first engages Balestrini. She wishes to see how it explored New England's historical, theological, social, political, and cultural issues, and thus moves from its mid-nineteenth-century reviewers to present-day commentators such as Sacvan Bercovitch. If the romance is to be read, in part, as Hawthorne's assessment of New England culture, how does his take on New England Puritanism figure in dramatic or operatic adaptations?

That question leads Balestrini, first, to dramatic adaptations, and to a discussion of ten plays based on The Scarlet Letter, some of which she treats only briefly, others in greater detail. Among those chosen for fuller treatment are Elizabeth Weller Peck's Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter Dramatized (1876) and James Edgar Smith's The Scarlet Stigma (1899). Peck's dramatization, coming as it did during the celebration of America's centennial celebration, "introduces major social and moral issues which merge Puritan ethics with values that prevailed during and after the nineteenth century" (270). Her characterization of Hester "demonstrates the merging of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century images of women as well as the playwright's aim of depicting a complex and admirable heroine who is to inspire empathy and identification on the part of the centennial audience." Daring to compete with Elizabethan playwrights, Smith draws from Hawthorne for the story but creates original dialogue, casting most of it in blank verse. Smith focuses sharply on the emotional and spiritual turmoil of Dimmesdale, whom he calls "Dimmsdell." In a scene in Dimmsdell's bedroom, one that distinctly echoes moments in Elizabethan drama, "a vision of Satan appears, challenges [Dimmsdell] to confess in public, and threatens to 'print a mark, the stigma/Of thy secret crime' on his chest" (281). This happens because the minister, for all his better intentions, cannot "purge his soul from sexual desire" (281). Satan then presents three images of Hester, as pure white womanhood, as a mother with babe in arms, and as a scorned woman wearing the scarlet A.

Unlike Hawthorne, Smith condemns Dimmesdale, sending him to eternal torment. He departs from Hawthorne's story by having the minister kill Chillingworth when he discovers that Chillingworth/Satan is Hester's husband. Given the transformation of Hawthorne's romance from the 1870s to our time, should the adaptation by Douglas Day Stewart for Roland Joff, and Demi Moore come as a real surprise, dealing as it does with a couple's intent upon breaking free from an oppressive society, a la D. H. Lawrence? Hawthorne's attempt to demonstrate and dramatize traits of American society as exemplified by a strain of Puritanism captures the imagination of writers desiring to understand what makes our nation tick.

A survey of dramatic adaptations and a detailed account of their reception stands as a prelude to Belestrini's major concern: the literary merit of operatic libretti. She foregrounds her analysis with an examination of how American audiences and critics viewed the two major operatic traditions competing in America, the Italian and the German. Which of these two could (or should) reflect the democratic aspirations of our nation? In the eyes of many Americans, Italian opera was opulent, decadent, little understood because sung in Italian, and a vehicle for parading famed singers and showing off fancy clothing and expensive jewelry. Much more somber, serious, and interested in using opera as a means of establishing national identity and cultural aspirations were operas by Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. The former's Der Freischotz, seen as an effort to help establish German identity as a nation, appealed, in part, to opera-goers because of the ideas it embraced. Wagner's adherence to theme and reluctance to having opera stars dominate a performance seemed both sensible and creatively fresh. Operas, Wagner showed, could be both entertaining and instructive, could be, in short, a medium for conducting a dialogue on ideas, politics, social issues, and cultural aspirations, for example, with the audience. American composers and librettists working within the German tradition would thus seem to have access to an artistic form capable of helping define the nation and express closely held beliefs. The first operatic setting of The Scarlet Letter, that of Lucien Southard (1855), a treatment of selected scenes rather than a full-length opera, came before Wagner's impact on American composers. When news of their performance reached Hawthorne in England, he wrote in his notebook: "I should think it might possibly succeed as an opera, though it should certainly fail as a play." (1)

Combining talents with Hawthorne's son-in-law, George Parsons Lathrop, Walter Damrosch brought a Wagner-flavored The Scarlet Letter to the American operatic stage (1895). Faithful to Damrosch's wish rather than to Hawthorne's exploration of New England's Puritan past, Lathrop recast the plot to resemble Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, focusing on the triangle of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, dropping Pearl as a character, and sending Hester to a tragic end through suicide. A romance stressing sin and retribution could not easily be merged with a Liebestod, hence Lathrop's disclaimer: "No attempt has been made to follow exactly the great prose romance from which the story is drawn.... My text is an original Dramatic Poem on the old theme of 'love, sin, suffering and partial expiation'" (290). Balestrini's examination of the collaborative efforts of Lathrop and Damrosch explores the similarities to and differences from Wagner's celebrated handling of a love triangle. She finds, ultimately, some coherence in the fact that Wagner's attempt to use myth to foster national self-identity parallels Damosch's and Lathrop's hope of creating a national opera by drawing from a classic American tale of sin, retribution, and loss. Performances of their opera were staged in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, the first grand opera to be produced in Boston. So Wagnerian was it that one critic referred to the work as a "New England Nibelung Triology."

Although he was German born and largely educated in Berlin, Walter Kaufmann kept a safe distance from Wagnerian opera, wishing, in his focus on the heroic struggle of Hester to remain strong and resilent in a doomed relationship, to create an opera responsive to Puritanic mores and values and to Chillingworth's obsession with gaining revenge. He ably dramatizes Dimmesdale's self-torture and feelings of guilt, but, interestingly, as a way of taking blame from Hester for withholding information about Chillingworth's true relation to her, Kaufmann has her simply not hear Dimmesdale's question about who Chillingworth really is. Kaufmann's work was staged at the University of Indiana, where he was a professor of music. As composer-librettist Kaufmann showed that he agreed with those readers of the romance who see Hester as the protagonist. Hester, Balestrini concludes, "takes center stage, and her triumph and heroism reside in the manner in which she deals with her affliction rather than in pride or a sense of superiority over others" (298).

A far more daring and original transformation of Hawthorne's romance into opera came from the hand of Marjorie Maxine Rusche. A lengthy quotation here seems justified: Rusche "interprets the legacy of seventeenth-century Boston by alternating between scenes set in the seventeenth century, the late twentieth century, and a surreal future. Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth appear in these three ages in era-defined, yet analogous roles. Besides these juxtapositions which are connected through repeated motifs, Rusche uses verbal irony and humor as well as a broad array of visual effects to convey her interpretation of the Puritan legacy; the desire to control others as well as the lack of honesty and interpersonal communication have so far prevented the realization of a utopian vision of an exemplary commonwealth. The opera concludes with a depiction of a utopian society as a fanciful embodiment of twentieth-century notions of individual liberty" (307). As an element of Hawthorne's hint of a better day for women, Rusche's libretto, dating from 1992, has obvious undertones of feminism and even clearer marks of individualism.

The engaging and quite practical quality of Balestrini's monograph is its carefully researched, intelligently interpreted, and judiciously assessed exploration of how three important works of American fiction found new life in another artistic medium. Anyone wishing to find a model for tracing the intertwining of three artistic media--fiction, drama, and opera--will find her study to be groundbreaking, richly informative, and totally absorbing reading. Her study both invites and compels us to give more heed to dramatic and operatic adaptations of three essential works in the canon of American fiction.


(1) The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. William Charvat et al., 23 vols. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962-1993), 21:346.
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Author:Idol, John L.
Publication:Nathaniel Hawthorne Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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