Nine Rivers from Jordan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Nine Rivers from Jordan is an opera in a prologue and three acts by composer Hugo Weisgall. The work uses an English libretto by Denis Johnston who derived the libretto from the book of the same title he wrote based on his experiences as a BBC radio reporter during World War II. The work premiered on October 9, 1968 at the New York City Opera.[1] The opera musically, dramatically and symbolically attempts to deal with the unprecedented moral problems caused by the circumstances of the Second World War. The use of many different languages in the libretto, the rapid changes of scene and the geographical extent of the action mirror the universal involvement and confusion of those years. In the opera, actual happenings and imaginary events are juxtaposed.


Don Hanwell, a British soldier stationed in the desert by the Dead Sea, is warned by a mysterious woman not to carry a weapon, as it is ordained that man will meet his death according to the arms he bears. Don heeds her warning and goes weaponless for the rest of the war, but this fact, coupled with Don’s general indifference to questions of right or wrong, causes him to allow a German prisoner, Otto Suder, to escape. Subsequently, Suder becomes a guard at Todenwald, a German concentration camp.

In a scene on the Brocken, legendary site of the Walpurgisnacht, an allegorical trial takes place to fix the guilt for the atrocities committed at Todenwald. Don himself feels guilty for his part in Suder’s escape years before. Though the verdict of the court is that all mankind is guilty, it pronounces that if Suder dies God will forgive everyone else. Don, feeling it is his duty to kill Suder, takes a hand grenade and sets out to find him.

In the last days of the war Don and a companion, Copperhead Kelly, find Suder, disguised as an English soldier, trying to escape into Italy. When Don announces he has come to kill him, Suder tricks him into taking his identification papers and convinces a mob of refugees that Don is a Nazi and he, Suder, is a British soldier. Copperhead Kelly makes no attempt to come to Don’s defense and Don feels betrayed. A woman in the mob takes the grenade from Don and gives it to Suder, who then throws it in an attempt to kill them all but succeeds only in killing himself. Don calls upon Heaven for an explanation of his betrayal and, in a dialogue with God, who speaks with the voice of Copperhead Kelly, is finally made to realize that, though we must accept all of life, both good and bad, we ourselves have the personal responsibility for making the choice between right and wrong and, though we are all “dirty,” we are not all damned.


Role Voice type Premiere Cast,[1]
October 9, 1968
(Conductor: – Gustav Meier)
Private Don Hanwell baritone Julian Patrick
Sergeant Abe Goldberg bass Joshua Hecht
Copperhead Kelly baritone Paul Huddleston
Otto Suder tenor David Clements
Salt Woman/The Pieta/Woman D.P. soprano Eileen Schauler
Lieutenant Jean l'Aiglon tenor William Brown
Father Matteo Angelino bass William Ledbetter
Major Mark Lyon tenor John Lankston
Captain Reverend Lucius Bull bass-baritone Will Roy
Andrew, the Highlander tenor John Stewart
Dead Man tenor Joaquín Romaguera
Little Jim Clap tenor Kellis Miller
Pepper Johnny baritone Raymond Gibbs
Tom Tosser tenor Nico Castel
Simple Simon baritone Raymond Papay
Sergeant Pete Fisher bass-baritone Michael Devlin



Libretto published by Theodore Presser, Bryn Mawr, Penna., 1968. Reprinted with revisions in The Dramatic Works of Denis Johnston, Vol. 2, Colin Smythe, 1979.