Madeleine Gordon wasn’t much of a Jew,
Nantucket, a cold island off the eastern coast of the United States, home to Madeleine Starbuck (soprano) the restless daughter of generations of whalers, who has married a Jew named David Gordon (tenor) to the horror of her French mother. Madeleine has heard of the remarkable powers of the New York Rabbi Sandy Lincoln (baritone) and invites him to address the small Jewish congregation on Nantucket.
Sandy, a forensic pathologist as well as a rabbi, has the rare talent of divining a victim’s history by merely touching his or her remains, and a congregant’s history by merely touching his or her soul. There is a mechanics to all creation, he tells his forensic assistants Selwyn (tenor) and Indira (soprano), invoking an old Talmudic legend about Eve. God made the first woman the way a violin maker makes a violin-bone by bone, lung by heart, rib by rib, string by peg. As a result, Adam was repelled, since all he could see in his wife were blood vessels and internal organs. So God put Adam to sleep and made a new Eve by adding a crucial ingredient-mystery. Selwyn, whose grandmother died in Auschwitz, refuses to accept the comparison between a woman and a violin. Rabbi, he tells Sandy, you have no soul.
Sandy arrives on Nantucket, hoping to find in the island, as Madeleine promised in her invitation, what she has found in her conversion to Judaism. Instead, he finds a mystery in Madeleine, a music that draws him to her. As she takes him on a tour of her ancestral mansion, the music grows stronger. It comes from a basement room, a holy of holies, that holds the family collection of scrimshaw-whale bone carved and etched by generations of Starbuck sailors. At the center of the collection is a violin, with a fingerboard of scrimshaw, that Madeleine’s mother brought to Nantucket from France after the War. How does Madeleine know, Sandy wonders, that in his youth, before medical school or seminary, he worshipped the violin?
Perhaps, he thinks at the dinner in his honor in the Starbuck ballroom, he has finally-bachelor that he is-found an Eve, created with a mystery beyond mere flesh and bones. When Madeleine asks him to play the scrimshaw violin for the dinner guests, he seizes the opportunity to play to her. He chooses a furious Bach Presto remembered from his youth, appropriate to the high drama of the whaling scene carved in the scrimshaw of the fingerboard.
But when Sandy looks up from the violin, all the guests have disappeared. Madeleine alone remains. But to Sandy’s horror, he no longer sees the Nantucket beauty, but the ribs and intestines that Adam saw in the first woman. Even more horrible, his doctor’s fingers come to another realization-that the fingerboard of the violin is not made of scrimshaw at all, but of the armbone of a woman, a woman who died in the War. Lowering the violin from his chin, he carries it down to the harbor for a final burial. Though he may have lost more than a violin, he might just have found his soul.
Bruce Saylor Composer
Jonathan Levi Original story and libretto
Mel Marvin Director
Sarah G. Conly Costumes
John Michael Deegan Sets
Gil Morgenstern Violin and Musical Director
Victor Benedetti Rabbi Doctor Sandy Lincoln
Sherry Boone Band Singer
Steven Goldstein Selwyn, David Gordon
Juliana Rambaldi Indira, Madeline Gordon
Jo-Ann Sternberg Clarinet
Carol Cook Viola
Peter Donovan Double Bass
Thomas Hoppe Piano
THE SCRIMSHAW VIOLIN
World premiere: December 3, 2001
The 92nd Street Y, New York City