An opera in one act.
Book and Music by John Aylward
Matilda submerging Dante in the Lethe. Gustav Dore
A Wanderer | Soprano
A Wanderer | Baritone
The Bound Man | Tenor
The Hunter | Baritone
Viola, Cello, Contrabass, Electric Guitar, Electronics.
Oblivion is an opera that tells the story of two wanderers journeying through Dante’s Purgatory and the pride, envy and deceit of Purgatory’s second circle. The two wanderers are played by a soprano and baritone. The two antagonists they meet, a bound man and a hunter, are played by a baritone and a tenor. The images of the river Lethe, the wild, and the beasts, are depicted in the low string settings and the electronic sounds. The libretto is in part original, in part adapted from Dante’s Purgatorio, and in part taken from the Book of Daniel, a Second Century apocalyptic vision.
“Then, as the river descends, it comes on beasts that,
though they are feeble, bark and growl;
scornful of them, it turns away its snout.
And beyond, the river flows on; and when a ditch,
ill-fated and cursed, grows wider, it
finds, more and more, the dogs becoming wolves.
Descending through many dark ravines,
it comes on foxes so full of deceit
there is no trap that they cannot defeat”
— Dante. Purgatorio, Canto XIII
As the opera opens, a The Wanderer has come out of the wild into the Hunter’s lair. He sees a man tied up in a corner. The Hunter is unnerved by the The Wanderer’s arrival but greets him and allows him to eat. The Wanderer asks where is and why he can’t remember anything. The Hunter tells the Wanderer that it will take time to explain the circumstances but that the answers he seeks are back out in the wild. The Wanderer explains how dangerous the outside is, but the Hunter is adamant: The Wanderer can stay for a short while to rest, but then must leave. The Hunter retires and instructs the Wanderer not to speak with the bound man because he is very dangerous.
The Wanderer, left on his own, sits by the fire and prays. The bound man, in mental and physical stress, tries to get The Wanderer’s attention. All is interrupted as a second Wanderer enters from the wild. The first Wanderer takes her in. They talk and realize that she also cannot remember anything before her journey. They cannot even remember their names. The second Wanderer examines the room but the first Wanderer warns that the Hunter might be angry if anything is touched. The bound man begins to engage the second Wanderer, saying that he can help them understand where they are. As the bound mam is speaking, The Hunter unexpectedly returns and is enraged to see The Wanderers speaking with the bound man. The Hunter offers his own explanation of the circumstances they are in and urges them to seek the path despite how dangerous it seems. Ultimately, The Wanderers have no choice since the Hunter says he will insist they leave by morning.
At night, the Wanderers discuss what kind of situation they are in. The Wanderer thinks that together they might be able to survive in the wild. One wants to explore despite the Hunter’s warning and laments how she could have possibly found herself in this situation. The other, despite fearing the Hunter, agrees to try and explore. The bound man overhears their plan and asks to be freed. The Wanderers worry that the bound man could spoil their plans so they unchain him and take him with them.
The Wanderers have walked through the Hunter’s space for a long time, through corridors, caverns and other endless liminal spaces. The first Wanderer laments his situation and the confusion he is in. Finally, they come upon a fountain. They set the man by the fountain to drink, seeing that he is nearly dead. The man quickly starts drinking large volumes of water and splashing his face with it. In between large indulgences of water, his memory returns. He explains that the fountain has restorative powers, both of the body and of the mind’s memories. He tells them that he remembers that he is a king. With his memory returning to him, the King explains that they have died and are all in a circle of purgatory within the afterlife.
The King continues to expound that the Hunter has taken possession of this circle of Purgatory through force. Those who die in this circle are doomed to return, trapped in an endless cycle, each time their memory erased. The King invites the Wanderers to drink from the fountain and reclaim their memories. The first Wanderer drinks and realizes he and the other Wanderer were in love. Troubling memories surface for him and he suspects that the second Wanderer may have killed them both. He urges her to drink so that she can fill in the gaps of their story. Troubled and spooked, she refuses to drink. She realizes that it was a mistake to explore and that she should have followed the Hunter’s warnings. The first Wanderer, meanwhile, is now happy that they have explored, ecstatic to remember his love and pleading his lost love to drink and remember. When she says that perhaps the Hunter’s warning was correct, the King lashes out. The King decries how the Hunter trapped him, coveting the passage to the fountain and the doorway to heaven. The first Wanderer is intrigued, seeing an opportunity to pass through the circle of purgatory. The second Wanderer is less impressed. The King promises that if they help him vanquish the Hunter, he will lead them to heaven.
As the King rests from his ecstatic awakening, the Wanderers discuss their situation. The second remains troubled that she may have been an instrument in their death. The first is at peace with the situation and encourages the other to remember what she can, which might be difficult but would include the love they shared. They sing to each other about their changing feelings, the second now wanting to explore the Hunter’s wilderness and the first now wanting to trust the King’s offer of redemption.
The King, and the Wanderers return to the Hunter’s lair and the King, in a fury, lambasts the Hunter, calling him evil and obstructing what the King has always seen as a divine prophesy. The Hunter, insisting that the King is dangerous, speaks more about their history. He explains that the King once ruled Purgatory, allowing no one to leave and ascend to heaven through the wild, instead tempting them with false memories and promises of redemption. Finally, the Hunter was able to wrest control of the circle and keep the King bound, allowing others to continue along the path in the wild. The King insists this is all a lie – that the Hunter wants to keep control and ignore his own shame and lack of redemption. The first Wanderer, filled with anger, kills the Hunter. The King rejoices and the second Wanderer, stunned, runs out to the wild. The Wanderer looks upon what he has done in shock. The King congratulates him, telling him that he has fulfilled a great prophesy and that now he may be redeemed and ascend to heaven. The King opens the door that the Hunter had been guarding. The Wanderer walks through. Once The Wanderer has vanished, The King drags the Hunter through the door as well and closes it. The King sings a victorious song.
Optional staged ending: The lights flash on and off, each time showing the King in various positions, as if in a time lapse. The final time we see the King is gone and instead, the Hunter is chained where the King was at the beginning of the opera. The first Wanderer enters just as in the beginning. The Wanderer and the Hunter exchange looks.