Reinventing a Classic: 'A Village Romeo and Juliet'

The opera has six scenes, all set in and around the tiny Swiss village of Seldwyla. Two local farmers, Marti and Manz, have long argued over a patch of unplanted land that lies between their properties.

There's also a third party involved: the Dark Fiddler. He's a mysterious man who walks with a limp, and carries a violin. He says the land rightfully belongs to him. But the authorities refuse to acknowledge the claim, as the Fiddler's mother and father were never married, and he has no legal proof of his parentage.

In SCENE ONE, as Marti and Manz are plowing their fields, they both sneak a couple of extra furrows onto the land that lies between them. Before long, two young children appear. Sali is Manz's young son, and Vreli is Marti's daughter. They've come to deliver lunch to their fathers, and when that's done, they go off to play on the wild patch of unplanted land.

As the farmers work, the two men and the children can all hear the mysterious Dark Fiddler in the distance. By dinnertime, a quarrel has broken out, as though the mere presence of the Fiddler is enough to spark further conflict. As the scene ends, the two men drag the children apart, and forbid them from ever playing together again.

SCENE TWO begins six years later, and takes place outside Marti's house, which is neglected and run down. The farmers have been involved in a lawsuit, which has ruined them both. Sali and Vreli are now grown. All along, they've quietly spent time together -- defying their parents -- and over the years, they've fallen in love.

Vreli is afraid the trouble between their families has reached a point where it can never be repaired. In a gentle duet, Sali tries to reassure her, saying that if the two of them can somehow manage to "hold together," things will work out for the best. They make plans to meet later that evening, in the fields.

Later, in SCENE THREE, Sali and Vreli meet on the disputed land, and the Dark Fiddler appears. He reminds them that the land is rightfully his. He also says that, thanks to their parents' foolishness, they have no future in the village. The Fiddler thinks the lovers should join him as drifters -- vagabonds. They turn down his offer, hoping things may still right themselves at home. The Fiddler leaves, saying he'll surely meet them again.

The lovers have little chance to enjoy their time together before Vreli's father, Marti, confronts them. Enraged, Sali strikes Marti, knocking him unconscious. Vreli runs off in despair, thinking her father is dead.

SCENE FOUR takes place some time later, at Marti's house, which is soon to be sold. Vreli is there, lamenting the impending loss of her childhood home. Her father has survived, but he lost his mind, and Vreli is taking him away. Sali has heard this news, and soon pays a visit. He and Vreli pledge to stay together, no matter what might happen. The two settle down by the fire for the night. At dawn, when they wake up, they discover they've both had the same, idyllic dream -- that they were married at the old village church in Seldwyla.

Now, in the light of day, they have a simpler goal: to spend just one happy day together. When they hear yodeling in the distance, Sali remembers a fair that's taking place nearby, and they head in that direction.

As SCENE FIVE begins, vendors at the fair are noisily hawking their wares. Sali and Vreli at first enjoy themselves. But they're soon recognized by people from Seldwyla, where their sad family histories are well known. The villagers eye them suspiciously, and Sali and Vreli decide to find somewhere else to spend their day. As they leave the fair, headed to a dance hall called Paradise Garden, we hear the opera's most famous number, the lush orchestral interlude, "The Walk to the Paradise Garden."

In SCENE SIX, when the lovers reach the garden, it's hardly the paradise they may have expected. Instead, it's simply a derelict old house, where they encounter a group of drifters sitting around a table, drinking. One of them is the Dark Fiddler, whose constant presence nearby seemed to haunt their troubled parents.

As he did once before, the Fiddler advises Sali and Vreli to hit the road with him and his friends, and live the rootless life of vagabonds. The Fiddler begins to play, while his friends dance, and try to persuade the lovers to join them. But Sali and Vreli have grown up in traditional households. Their families are now broken, but together they agree they could never live a life that, to them, seems hopeless.

Bargemen are heard singing in the distance, and suddenly, Sali and Vreli see a way to find peace. They'll float down the river, like the bargemen, though they have nowhere to go -- and now, with no homes, no place to return.

As the Dark Fiddler watches, they board a decrepit old hay barge. Vreli throws a bouqet into the water. Then Sali removes the plug from the bottom of the boat, and throws it in, too. The vessel slowly heads down the river and Sali and Vreli, like Tristan and Isolde, sing of love and death, with the Fiddler playing in the background. As the lovers settle together on a bed of hay, the barge passes around a bend, sinking under the water and out of sight, as the opera ends.