Mercury Falling

(2009)

libretto by Daniel Neer 

"Librettist Daniel Neer fancifully envisions what is going through Brian's head that night, as the sculptor readies himself for a comeback after an early splash of fame. As the cold sets in, Brian begins to hallucinate, imagining that the statue is alive, telling it all his hopes for a success at an upcoming exhibition. Carter's score for two players at one piano beautifully conjures icy coldness with tinkling short phrases and fevered delirium with dissonant, skittering chords. The music constantly changes to fit Brian's mood swings…  [T]his is a confident, intriguing work.”" 
— Roy Dicks, The Raleigh News and Observer, 

Mercury Falling is a fanciful interpretation of the last night in the life of Parisian sculptor Jean-Louis Brian (1805-1864). In the winter of early 1864, Brian attempted to protect his clay statue of Mercury in Repose from the bitter cold by covering it with his only blankets – and subsequently froze to death beside it. Mercury Falling depicts Brian’s feverish attempts to finish his sculpture for the impending Salon exhibition. As the temperature drops and he succumbs to hypothermic hallucinations, he is lured into a fantasy world in which the god Mercury comes to life.

Incorporating themes of the artist’s struggle for meaning, recognition and even survival,Mercury Falling is a monologue that shifts between reality and an allegorical fantasy world. The vocalist portrays the artist through vignettes of music and text (both sung and spoken) in free-association. Accompanying him on stage is a dancer/model portraying the life-sized Mercury. The chamber ensemble alternately evokes the freezing, desperate climate of the artist’s studio and his increasingly grandiose expectations for his work of art.

ACTION

A mature, but unappreciated sculptor is his late 50’s, Brian has nearly completed his Mercury in Repose, intended as an entry for the upcoming Salon exposition. But the intense cold and his exhaustion have begun to compromise his technical and mental clarity. As Brian puts the finishing touches on his work he frets about its flaws, and complains about his meager living conditions and his life of anonymity and poverty.

Brian is certain the statue of Mercury will be included in the exhibition and win the top prize. He rhapsodizes about the power and beauty of his subject, listing Mercury’s many attributes as a shining messenger and guide for heroes of antiquity. Brian reflects back to his first artistic yearnings: winning the coveted Prix de Rome and his wonderful months of study at the Villa Medici in Italy. Now jealous of other artists’ success, Brian fantasizes about a life of fame and fortune. He sees himself as a mythic hero. In a long, steady crescendo of bravado and determination, Brian lists the litany of people that he will impress at the Salon — the artists, the jury, the public — and the honors and awards that await him.

Imagining that he is presenting his work at Salon, Brian senses that the jury is not impressed, forcing him to grandstand and embarrass himself before the crowd that has gathered. After hearing the sound of the dismissal bell, Brian, in a self-destructive fury, pushes his Mercury from its stand.

Horrified at his own action, Brian suddenly remembers his role as loving creator. He carefully returns the statue to its original position, and to protect it from freezing, lays his only blanket over it. Confident that his work is saved but shivering violently in the cold, the exhausted artist succumbs to the overwhelming desire to sleep.

Personnel: 

Jean-Louis Brian; ca 55 (tenor)

solo dancer

Ensemble: 

flute, clarinet, trumpet, horn, percussion, piano, single strings

(version for piano four hands)