Where Angels Fear to Tread
Note from General Director Larry Hancock:
It will come as no surprise to lovers of English literature that E. M. Forster (A Room With a View, Howards End, Maurice, A Passage to India) disapproved of his fellow countrymen’s condescension toward those who were not like themselves. In Where Angels Fear to Tread, Forster presents us a study of personal injury caused by condescending prejudice. Set in the first years of the 20th century, the novel portrays a sunny Italian youth who gets caught up in an English family’s petty vengeance and vanity. Mark Weiser’s opera takes up the story when Philip Herriton arrives to stop the marriage of his widowed sister-in-law to this charming Italian youth.
Philip Herriton arrives in Monteriano, Italy to stop Lilia, his widowed sister-in-law, from marrying Gino Carella, a twenty-one-year-old she met less than two weeks earlier. He arrives only to discover that, anticipating Philip’s interference, she married the boy that morning. Philip returns to England, after a failed mission, with his sister-in-law’s traveling companion, Caroline Abbott. Some months later, Lilia attempts to leave Gino, as she has discovered she is pregnant, and desperately wants to go back to England. Gino and his housekeeper find Lilia, who has fallen in the street, and take her home.
Lilia has died in childbirth. Philip and his sister Harriet arrive on a mission from their mother to retrieve Lilia’s child. Caroline has also returned to Monteriano for the same purpose, hoping to adopt the child herself. It is obvious that Harriet, perhaps from the strain of travel and leaving the routine of bourgeois life in an English village, has become unhinged. Insisting that Philip go immediately to fetch the infant boy, but at the sight of Caro line, whom she knows and whom she feels she can trust, she is calmed.
Intermission (20 minutes)
Philip and Caroline have a private conversation in which Caroline reveals her intention to adopt Lilia and Gino’s baby. She feels that the Herritons have no feeling for the child but are embarrassed to have a neighbor offering charity to a child that is connected to their family. Of greater significance, she feels it was because of her urging that Lilia married Gino in the first place.
A poster outside the hotel announces a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor that night, and Philip insists that Harriet and Caroline attend the performance with him. After the performance, the Herritons and Caroline happen on to Gino and some friends, who also attended the opera. The women leave and Philip joins Gino and his friends. Philip is caught up in the beauty of the moment, the open friendliness of Gino and his friends, and in the genial, easy life of Italy.
Caroline arrives to negotiate her adoption of Gino and Lilia’s eight-month- old son. She finds Gino preparing to bathe the child, and in helping him, discovers how much he loves his son. When Philip arrives, Caroline rushes away, unable to continue her plan to take the baby.
Intermission (15 minutes)
Caroline is in the Church of Santa Deodata praying that the Herritons leave Gino and the child in peace, but they arrive with Harriet shouting that Caroline has tried to scuttle their plan. Caroline withdraws her support in clear terms. All three decide to leave by the night train and Philip tells Caroline he will talk to Gino in the afternoon. She assures him Gino will not part with his son.
Philip calls to Harriet who left instructions with the cab driver to look for her outside the city gate. Harriet arrives carrying the baby. Philip can’t understand how she managed to talk Gino into giving up his child, but she does not answer him, urging the driver to go faster down the steep road in the dark and rain. But things do not go as any of them might have expected, leading to emotional encounters between Philip, Gino, and Caroline that redefine the relationships between them.
In the final scene, the English visitors prepare to leave Monteriano. Harriet enters and announces that they will not be coming back to Italy, but Philip remains behind a moment and corrects that; he will be back. He will most certainly be back.