28 November 2013

Preview: More Between Jefferson & Cosway

Melissa Errico

The private life of Thomas Jefferson is the focus of the next Salon/Sanctuary Concert, “More Between Heaven and Earth,” On December 8, the third President’s correspondence and the music of his time will combine to shed light on his relationship with Maria Cosway, whose intellectual and artistic gifts — to say nothing of her beauty — fascinated him for the rest of his life.

Cosway was a painter who, later in life, founded a school for girls in Italy. Music formed an important bond between her and Jefferson, and “More Between Heaven and Earth” features not only the music that she and Jefferson heard together (notably Sacchini’s opera Dardanus, a tale of separated lovers) but also songs that Cosway herself composed for Jefferson. And because this is a Salon/Sanctuary concert, the venue matches the material: New York City’s venerable Fraunces Tavern, where Jefferson, as the first U.S. Secretary of State, kept his office.

Nowadays, we tend to focus more on Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings — his slave, his wife’s half-sister, and the mother of several of his children — a history fraught with the perversions of liberty in early America and the tangle of race relations ever since. But Jefferson’s relationship with Cosway was also revealing of his character. He met her in Paris, even while he’s believed to have fathered the first of Hemings’ children, and over this relationship, too, hung the specter of scandal.

Jefferson was a widower, Cosway was unhappily married, in an era when divorce meant social ruin; she was Catholic, besides, and subject to further proscriptions against divorce. History drove them apart, too, notably the French Revolution and the founding of the United States; they spent most of their lives separated by the Atlantic. Nothing could come of the attraction the two felt for each other, and yet that didn’t stop them from writing passionate letters that form the basis of Erica Gould’s script, performed by Melissa Errico (Cosway) and Campbell Scott (Jefferson), with Judith Hawking narrating.

Campbell Scott

“It’s nuanced,” Scott says, comparing the script to a great novel, in which “two really smart and educated people are expressing themselves. They’re missing each other, and it’s an odd, unrequited love. They’re very up-front about loving each other, but they can’t be together. It’s hopefully very sexy.”

As a self-described Italian–American romantic who relishes period pieces (“I’m all corsets, all the time,” she says, pointing to her role on the Cinemax series The Knick), Errico finds Cosway an irresistibly appealing part, and this isn’t the first time she’s joined Salon/Sanctuary for “More Between Heaven and Earth.”

“It’s being done in an exciting way,” she says. “We’re wearing period costumes, we candle-light the room, the other singers are up in the balconies in this historical space. It’s like going back in time. It’s certainly not a play that’s in a box: you’re surrounded by the era.”

The more Classical assignments in the concert will be fielded by soprano Jessica Gould and tenor Tony Boutté, with members of the instrumental group the Sebastians led by Jeffrey Grossman. But for Cosway’s songs, Errico will “step in front of the harpsichords” to sing.

Maria Cosway: Like Isabel Archer,
but with more interesting friends.

“Maria’s songs are not really operatic but personal,” she says, and for her they’re tied to the letters, “written directly from her heart, [with] melancholy because of the physical distance from her lover and her unhappy marriage.” Errico’s maternal grandmother once dreamed of a career in opera, and her father still pursues Classical piano at Juilliard; for her own part she’s won acclaim singing the lyric leading roles in My Fair Lady and One Touch of Venus. “But I’m more a theater person,” she says, and she strives to make Cosway’s songs “very simple and very direct, like in a small room for a small group of friends, accompanied by a harp. This wasn’t meant to be projected at the Met.”

Best known for his co-starring role in Longtime Companion and for co-directing the brilliant Big Night, Scott has played Jefferson once before — “in a wig, on PBS,” he says. He relishes the chance to perform the authentic words of people who “were really the heads of their societies, leading figures for different reasons, and smart. That doesn’t mean they always expressed their own feelings perfectly — which is also great to say. But they’re so well-spoken. If you become an actor, that’s something you desire. It’s what you seek out.”

He’s relieved, however, that as Jefferson he won’t be called on to sing: “That might grind the evening to a halt. Although if asked to play the violin, I could fake it.” Meanwhile Errico has determined that, if Salon/Sanctuary revives “More Between Heaven and Earth” again, she’ll learn to accompany herself on the harp — but not in time for the performance on December 8.

No matter. “People who love music will get the music and a great story,” Scott promises. “And people who love the characters, you get the music. It’s a bonus night, for God’s sake!”

More Between Heaven and Earth
Sunday, December 8, 6:00 P.M.
The Bissel Room, Fraunces Tavern

54 Pearl Street, New York
Script & stage direction by Erica Gould
Program concept & music research by Jessica Gould
For more information, click here.

Jefferson: A complex personality.


Anonymous said...

Interesting piece. Still busy with your bio? Can we expect more regular posts in the forseeable future?

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Rick. I've got scads of essays just waiting to break free -- including my response to the performance previewed here. But right now I am indeed overwhelmed with the biography, which makes it a challenge to sit down and write it all down. I'm trying, though!