The Lyre of Orpheus (novel)
The Lyre of Orpheus, first published by Macmillan of Canada in 1988, is the last of the three connected novels of the Cornish Trilogy by Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. It was preceded by The Rebel Angels (1981) and What's Bred in the Bone (1985).
In The Lyre of Orpheus, the executors of the will of Francis Cornish (the subject of What's Bred in the Bone) find themselves at the head of the "Cornish Foundation". The executors, Simon Darcourt, Arthur Cornish, and Maria Cornish, are called upon to decide what projects deserve funding. They decide that a hitherto-unfinished opera by E. T. A. Hoffmann will be staged at Stratford, Ontario; to this end, they hire a brilliant young composition student, Hulda Schnakenburg, to complete the opera as the work necessary to qualify her for a PhD., while Darcourt is charged with the completion of the libretto, which James Planché had attempted to write.
The opera to be completed is King Arthur or the Magnanimous Cuckold. The story follows the writing and then production of the opera, and the plot of the story arcs in a way that parallels the legend of King Arthur, and in particular the triangle of King Arthur, his queen, Guenevere, and Lancelot. Geraint Powell, an actor who serves on the Board of the Cornish Foundation, fathers a child by Maria Cornish, forcing Arthur Cornish to choose between a generous or vindictive response. The Lyre of Orpheus explores not only the world of early eighteenth century opera, but also follows Darcourt's research into the life of the benefactor and artist, Francis Cornish, leading to a discovery that forces Darcourt to conclude that a painting previously attributed to an unknown fifteenth century painter was in fact the work of Francis Cornish himself. This painting, entitled The Wedding at Cana featuring the portraits of many of the people who appeared as characters from Blairlogie, the fictional town in Ontario that was the setting of the second book of the trilogy, What's Bred in the Bone. A further plotline involves the sexual and artistic flowering of PhD candidate Hulda Schnakenburg ("Schnak") under the hand of Gunilla Dahl-Soot, a distinguished Swedish musicologist who serves as Schnak's academic advisor and becomes her lover.
The book explores a number of themes, including the pursuit of life beyond the ordinary or comfortable routine and which is exemplified in the artistic quest to produce the opera or in Darcourt's quest to uncover the truth behind the painting of The Wedding at Cana The theme of marriage is examined through the relationship between Arthur and Maria Cornish, a relationship that must withstand the test of infidelity And the modern approach to relationships is mocked in the dysfunctional common-law marriage of two minor characters who present themselves in Toronto to monitor and record the production of the opera from start to finish.
As often happens in Davies' novels, all is not simple; for example, the ghost of Hoffman, trapped in limbo as a result of the unsatisfactory state of his artistic work, attends and comments on the proceedings. Nor is all peaceful among the characters, as they react to Powell's seduction of Maria Cornish, Dahl-Soot's seduction of Schnak, and the inevitable tensions created by the effort to mount an operatic production.