Off the Beaten Track: David Hertzberg’s ‘The Rose Elf’ Will Have You Checking Your BouquetsBy Chris Ruel
Off the Beaten Track is an album review series that takes readers on a cross-disciplinary journey through recordings, spotlighting the cool, the unusual, and the beautiful work created by artists who push boundaries and take the road less traveled.
I have a spooky story for you. Ten friends (seven young women and three young men) flee to the countryside to wait out a deadly pandemic. To amuse themselves, they tell stories. One goes like this:
A young woman (Lisabetta) falls in love with a young man (Lorenzo). Lorenzo is a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy who works in Lisabetta’s family’s warehouse. Lisabetta’s brother doesn’t much like his sister canoodling with the help, so he kills Lorenzo. Lorenzo’s ghost enters Lisabetta’s dreams and reveals the crime. Lorenzo’s spirit instructs her to go into the woods where she’ll find a hastily dug grave.
The next day, Lisabetta does as instructed and there she discovers the dead Lorenzo. What’s a lover to do? She exhumes the body, severs the head, and smothers it with kisses before taking it home. But where in the house should one keep the head of a dead lover? How about within a pot of basil? Lisabetta “plants” the head and waters it with her tears. Soon, there’s an abundance of delicious basil. The brother catches wise to his sister’s sudden interest in horticulture, and, after digging into the pot comes upon an unwelcome surprise, Lorenzo’s head was the secret to great-tasting basil. Lisabetta, inconsolable with grief, dies shortly thereafter.
Filomena’s tale or “The Pot of Basil” in one of 100 stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” (1353), and it’s a macabre tale riffed upon by other writers, including the poet John Keats (“Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”) and, the great spinner of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen. 500 years after Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” Andersen wrote “The Elf of the Rose,” a reimagining of the vignette in which a tiny elf recounts a similarly disturbing love story. How small is the elfin narrator? He’s so small he makes his home in a rose. Here’s how Andersen’s retelling goes:
A cold snap causes the Rose Elf’s rose residence to close up for the night, driving him across the garden to gain temporary shelter in a nearby cluster of honeysuckle. Along the way, he stumbles upon two lovers whispering sad goodbyes. The young man has been sent away on a journey and doesn’t know when he might return. The elf spies a rose adorning the hair of the young woman. How fortuitous for the elf! He’ll take a rose over honeysuckle any day, so Rose Elf hops into the flower and hitches a ride when the young man places it in his pocket for the long journey ahead. Shortly into the young man’s travels, the brother of the young woman shows up, kills the poor fellow, and severs the head from the body. But there’s a witness—the elf! Later that evening, as the young woman sleeps, the Rose Elf whispers the dark secret into her ear, and in the end, it’s not basil the young man’s head fertilizes, but jasmine.
Cool stories, right? Turns out they’re perfect for an opera!
Hertzberg Continues to Push Boundaries
Award-winning Composer/librettist David Hertzberg likes his stories dark and his music lush, and he’s back with another recording, this time “The Rose Elf,” a one-act opera that hews more to Andersen’s tale than Boccaccio’s. As I wrote in a previous Off the Beaten Track exploring Hertzberg’s MCANA Best New Opera Award-winning opera, “The Wake World,” the composer’s work is experiential and a sonic feast.
“The Rose Elf” is no different. The opera’s premiere, like that of “The Wake World,” had a fitting location. In June 2018, Hertzberg staged the gruesome “Rose Elf” in the catacombs of Brooklyn, New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Imagine the acoustics!
In the fall of the same year, Hertzberg assembled the cast and a chamber orchestra of nine to record the opera. (By comparison, “The Wake World” had four fewer instruments, and it sounded Straussian! “The Rose Elf” maintains the big “Hertzbergian” sound, conjuring the musical muscle of 100 instruments from under 10.)
The full production of “The Rose Elf” developed out of Opera Philadelphia’s “Double Exposure” program in 2016 and 2018. Hertzberg, along with executive producers mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, and conductor Robert Kahn, wrote of the experience in the liner notes.
“… In the spring of 2016, we were introduced to one another through a workshop-performance of Part I of “The Rose Elf,” presented by Opera Philadelphia. Over the course of the next two years, the seeds sown during those short weeks of creativity and discovery would yield another two workshop performances, also presented by Opera Philadelphia, and in June 2018, “The Rose Elf” was given its world premiere run in an unprecedented presentation in the catacombs of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, directed by R.B. Schlather, and produced in collaboration with Green-Wood and Unison Media.”
For the recording, Hankey reprised her role as The Elf—a part tailored specifically for her. Joining Hankey was soprano Sydney Mancasola performing the dual role of Luna and The Girl; tenor Kirk Dougherty as Horus and The Beloved; and, bass-baritone Andrew Bogard as The Brother.
“A narrow window in the fall of 2018 turned out to be the perfect time to cull an extraordinary cast and a brilliant roster of instrumental soloists, musical friends from near and far, along with our engineer (Grammy® Award-winning) Andreas Meyer, to a newly designed studio space just outside of New York City. The result was two days of ecstatic music-making, and an alchemy of musical voices and personalities that felt both like an echo and natural realization of our project’s auspicious beginnings,” wrote the production trio in the album’s notes.
Appropriately, Hertzberg’s recording dropped on Halloween, but it’s a good opera for listening to on any late-fall or winter night.
Tragedy, Creepiness, and Eroticism in “The Rose Elf”
Three things struck me about Hertzberg’s “Rose Elf:” the opera’s palpable sense of tragedy, its creepiness, and the heavy infusion of eroticism within the story.
A love pathological enough to induce a person to bury the head of their beloved in a potted plant is not healthy, yet what sticks out in the story—whether Boccaccio’s, Andersen’s, or Hertzberg’s—is the tragedy that befalls the lovers. The burying-the-head-in-the-pot device is grotesque and great for shock value, but it’s The Girl’s devotion toward her Beloved that takes center stage
The Elf is a creepy creature, and depending on your interpretation, he can be viewed as well-meaning, meddlesome, or maybe something more sinister, though I don’t think it’s the latter. My association with tattling elves is tied to the Elf on the Shelf—an all-seeing, smiling snitch who spies on and rats out naughty children to Santa, so my viewpoint is skewed; but, whether it’s a holiday elf peering down at you from a shelf or a teensy one tucked away in the petals of a rose, no one likes being watched.
As narrator, The Elf relates what he observes, not as a disinterested party, but as someone who has suffered loss, too. When The Elf’s rose closes to wait out a cold night, he lost his bed and his lover. It turns out The Elf really loves his home.
While flowers have served as sexual symbols and metaphors for ages, Hertzberg places much of the eroticism of the opera within the Elf/rose relationship. The following are a few examples:
“How soft is the delicate flesh of your blushing petals?”
“Farewell, sweet, supple rose! Until our quiet evening tryst, I leave you yawning.”
“Ah! She is all closed up, my darling rose! O what am I to do? Never have I spent a night outside the cozy warmth of her ruby chambers, never have I slept without the secret brush and fragrance of her petals—”
“How the seedling opens for her kisses! Oh-oh! I’ve found my cozy chamber!”
“… the [rose’s] sweltering blossom, splayed agape on his chest as from scalding heat…”
The humans in the story don’t make you redden quite the same way as The Elf’s description of his home. The Elf, though initially saddened by losing his love nest, quickly finds a replacement when he spots a rose in The Girl’s hair. Perhaps a saying among rose-dwelling elves is that there are plenty of flowers in the garden.
The Elf: Well-meaning or Meddlesome?
Hertzberg juxtaposes the love The Elf has for his flower with that of the doomed couple, with the libretto implying horticulture as the only way The Elf understands the grief he witnesses. Flowers are never far from The Elf’s thoughts. Consider these lines:
As he observes The Girl watering the jasmine with her tears, The Elf says, “Would that the seedlings knew, the grief on which they grow.”
After The Girl dies of a broken heart, The Elf strokes her hair. “She’s gone now – the blooming girl…”
And, while surveying the tragic tableau of the dead Girl resting her head alongside the thriving jasmine, The Elf concludes the opera ruminating on the beauty of the plant, not The Girl. “O, how you’ve blossomed – How you’ve disclosed your beautiful white bells! – And how sweet and delicious is your fragrance!” The Elf pauses before finishing, “I suppose you have no other way to cry over the dead.”
And with that, The Elf jumps back into the rose and goes to sleep as if nothing’s happened, retreating to his new red, soft-petaled, sweet-smelling blossom for a nap.
Not my lover, not my problem seems to be his attitude.
Despite the horror and sadness, The Elf displays at the plight of human lovers, and the “humanity” he takes on by feeling for the poor Girl’s loss, he doesn’t spend much time grieving for her when she’s face down next to the jasmine. Remember, his primary motivation before getting swept up in human drama was locating a new rose to sleep in, or with… And, in the end, he finds one; in between was a terrible sideshow into which, for better or for worse, he decided to insert himself. If he was well-meaning, he could’ve intervened further and attended to the poor girl in her desperate hour, but he doesn’t.
With this in mind, I fall on the side of The Elf acting in a meddlesome and unhelpful way. He delivers bad news and then watches the ensuing horror show. In essence, he’s an emotional voyeur. If I were his elf friend, I’d say, “Stay out of human affairs—watch, but never meddle.”
As a child, I loved a book called “The Fire Cat.” The cat, Pickles, is a stray who gets himself into trouble on a regular basis. A lady rescues Pickles and says to him: “Pickles, you’re not a bad cat. You’re not a good cat. You are good and bad…” I’d place The Elf alongside Pickles. He’s not a bad elf, nor is he an entirely a good elf.
“The Rose Elf” is a dark, horror opera, so an elf without moral ambiguity doesn’t fit the overall nature of the story or the music that surrounds it.
On the Record
Hankey pours her full heart, soul, and vocal prowess into portraying The Elf. Sydney Mancasola’s The Girl is heartbreaking throughout the opera, and when she learns of her Beloved’s death, her harrowing cry of “O, that God might take me too!” gave me goosebumps every time. I also enjoyed the malevolence that rumbles through Andrew Bogard’s voice as The Brother. Talk about creepy.
Hertzberg’s libretto displays a sharp sense of poetic language that is rife with accessible beauty through an economy of words. And, as a composer, Hertzberg is masterful at using a minimal number of instrumentalists to create gargantuan sound. The composition calls for one clarinet, a horn, percussion, piano, two violins, a viola, cello, and bass. A tip of the chapeau goes to cellist Julian Schwarz for his haunting solos, and to percussionist Bradley Loudis and pianist Euntaek Kim, who provided the otherworldly arpeggios and other effects that lent so much to the atmospherics of the piece.
Until next time, check your roses for elves and enjoy the basil.
“The Rose Elf” was released on Andreas Meyer’s Swan Studios label.