"Aceldama," Greek and later Aramaic for "field of blood,” appears in reference to the field where Cain slew Abel in the first recorded homicide (in fact, fratricide) of the Judeo-Christian tradition. “Aceldama” is sometimes also used to describe the field where Judas committed suicide after his betrayal of Christ. The opera “Aceldama” was commissioned by, and is dedicated to, artist Joe Nicastri. The work is scored for four soloists (soprano, two tenors and baritone), chorus and orchestra and lasts approximately 65 minutes.
“Aceldama” is based on the story of Cain and Abel, and takes this tragedy through the ages to the Nazi Germany death camps and beyond. Three parts are joined to form one act. Part I takes place in the time of Cain and Abel. Part II and III take place in the 1940's, with the final scene projecting surrealistically into the present and future. Elements are fused from accounts of the Holocaust, Jewish and Christian texts, the Upanishads, the Arthurian legend, Dante’s Inferno, and the Faust legend among other sources.
The birth of Cain and Abel and the differences in the sacrifices each can offer. Eve questions why God will not accept Cain's sacrifices and Adam offers his explanation. Cain tries variations on the sacrifices from his crops including the fashioning of a homunculus from vegetation. All of his attempts are rejected. In profound despair, the answer comes to Cain in a vision and he slays his brother Abel. A Litany of Fratricide is taken on by the chorus as they surround the audience with their accusations. An orchestral interlude follows that interlaces a mournful chorale played by string quartet with two medieval melodies (Douce dame, L'Homme armé) while the Horst Wessel Song (the Nazi Hymn) is interjected. At the conclusion of this, we are shown a simple set in the 1940's.
Part II: Scene 1
1940's. Adam and Eve's apartment. They are packing for the relocation. Adam, wanting to believe in the future, brings up the question of an ornate chalice he wants to take with them. Eve harbors no illusions and has no motivation to bring anything - she is convinced that they are going to be killed. After an unsuccessful attempt at consolation, Adam is spurned, and talks of Eve’s grip on his heart, and his inability to move other than in the direction in which he is pointed. References are made not only to the medieval Arthurian myth but also to that of Creation and the forming of Eve from a rib. His passionate appeal to Eve for their renewal is rejected out of hand by a flat "I cannot risk bringing another into this place, it is unclean." The steam and whistle of a freight train is heard from behind the audience. The apartment set pulls apart to reveal a concentration camp.
Part II: Scene 2
Auschwitz. The chorus streams in from the back of the auditorium, as prisoners arriving at the death camp. A quartet of prisoners is brought out to play salon music (from Lehar's "The Merry Widow") to pacify and deceive the new arrivals. Cain is a Nazi camp officer directing the new arrivals left or right as they enter the stage depending on their status (labor/immediate death). He complains of his wound that will not heal and its relationship to his brother. His brother has been "relocated"("...I should not be blamed...") and grabbing one of the condemned women, Cain tells the story of dancing with his brother's girl and hearing voices the night of the relocation. The prisoners and guards (except Cain and the woman) scatter from the stage as if in response to an air raid. A pedal point begins to emanate from the orchestra overwhelming the Lehar and the next scene begins with a sharp orchestral explosion of sound. The set once again pulls apart, revealing three large screens showing black and white images of places of desecration before, during and after the Holocaust.
Part II: Scene 3
Cain with woman prisoner held tightly in his arms in front of screens. Surrealistic scene. Escalating cacophony of sounds including, the orchestra, chorus, voices form the pit and offstage band. Offstage brass band plays the Nazi hymn...voices are heard from the pit. "Auschwitz -- How long, O Lord, dost thou not avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth..." half-chanted, overlapping, growing in intensity and climbing in pitch...like voices heard/half-heard in the wind. "Aceldama, Aceldama, Aceldama" is intoned three times by the chorus from backstage. (voices from the pit are more and more prominent throughout this -- chant evolves to surging wails). After the third iteration of "Aceldama" -- An overpowering voice demands "Where is your brother? What have you done? The blood of your brother cries out to me from the ground!" Suddenly these sounds are shut off -- like a door slammed shut. Very quiet, high shimmering metallic sounds of bells and glass chimes remain and a Dies Irae is heard from offstage. In response from the pit: "Buchenwald solvent ex favilla, Auschwitz solvent ex favilla" (Buchenwald dissolve in ashes, etc.) etc. In silence, Cain drags the woman off stage. A reflective orchestral interlude follows.
PART III: Scene 1
Adam/Amfortis. All is overcast with the dark glow and smoke from the ovens. Adam is searching for Eve and encounters another prisoner (Cain as Amfortis) complaining of a wound. A duet ensues in which Adam recognizes Cain and accuses him of atrocities. Cain/Amfortis holds a mirror to Adam's face and shows him that the person he recognizes, is himself. When Adam asks about Eve, Cain/Amfortis gestures strongly to the pillars of smoke from the ovens. Adam screams at the dual recognition of his own complicity and Eve's destruction. An orchestral interlude follows in which Adam nears madness in the stark reality of his new identity. He is Christ, who was always Job, who was always Abel, who was always Adam, who was always Cain, who was always Amfortis, who was always God.
PART III: Scene 2
Adam's Lament. Adam laments the loss of Eve and recounts their life together in relation to the ash on his shoulders, "...and now you are spiraling away from me in a flume of heated ash - was it always like that?" Adam,(now Amfortis/Cain) with references to the Arthurian legend, reflects on his unhealing wound, " ... my wound does not heal and I am death denied..."
PART III: Scene 3
Adam/Job. An encounter ensues between God (the chorus) and Adam, which recalls the story of Job. References are made to the Creation, to the formation of Eve and the curiosity of Longinus. Accusations and doubts are cast as to who created and abandoned whom and then ...with enlightenment, the wound begins to heal. Adam realizes that with the healing of the wound he is responsible for his own actions and that he (God/Adam/Cain/Amfortis/Job) has been liberated and allowed to die - ie. given back his life, ability to make choices - to live like an animal - as part of nature rather than as Nietzche's superman.. He collapses into the crowd and the opera ends with a powerful orchestral postlude.
Aceldama is a surrealistic work concerned with the concepts of free will and responsibility. The story weaves itself loosely around the Biblical account of Cain and Abel. While there is not a traditional plot, there is the thread of historical and literary characters interacting throughout time in a progression that takes us from fratricide to homicide, genocide and ultimately suicide. Over all of this is an examination of the relationship between man’s spiritual and chthonic selves and how this understanding affects our choices and their consequences. The final quote from the Upanishads summarizes the entire work.
As the same fire assumes different shapes when
it consumes objects differing in form,
So does the one take the shape of every creature
in whom it is present.
As your desire is, so is your will
As your will is, so is your deed
As your deed is, so is your destiny.
Adam and Eve can be thought of in the Jungian terms of anima and animus1. Their relationship is that of the mysterium coniunctionis2. The offspring (Cain and Abel) become a second layer of this differentiation and in fact are the two representatives of the chthonic world. They, unlike their parents, are direct descendants of the earth and seek spiritual connection through devotional sacrifice. Abel functions in the world like Adam. Neither creates, both are destroyers of life (necessary to sustain life) while Cain proceeds like Eve, nurturing the earth and bringing forth crops – a creator. Together, these characters represent the fundamental facets of the archetypical human.
When Cain slays Abel, he has crossed over into a foreign world. Cain, no longer able to follow his nature, becomes an aberration. He is neither Cain nor Abel, neither Adam nor Eve. Adam, through Cain, follows a circuitous path (Adam, Cain, Amfortis, Job) that leads him back to his creator. In the violent confrontation between God and Adam (who now mostly resembles Job) at the end of the opera, the circle is closed as God and Adam are one. God appears as a dissociated personality – juvenal and completely non-reflective in its omnipotence – essentially self-blind. The fact that this personality is omnipotent and omniscient puts it in the position that essentially precludes it seeing himself 3. God, incapable of seeing himself, requires the worship of man to prove his own existence. Adam (now as Job), his most faithful servant and original creation combined, calls God into question. This wreaks psychic havoc. The chorus (as God) sings in undulating heterophony and polyphony portraying the disassociated or psychotic state of the creator spiritus.
See how you have failed to nurture what I have given you?
You have laid waste the lands
You have slain Abel from generation to generation
I have given you free will so that your worship might be sincere and you have abandoned me.
All this I have done for you -
Your very breath is my breath and you abandon me!
Only Adam can “see” God for what “he is”.
Whereas Job at this point had “placed his hand upon his mouth” – Adam speaks out defining the moment.
You seem to have forgotten,
I didn't come here in the swollen wonder of spring -
I arrived on the echoes of winter with hoar-frost in my beard and scarlet thorns about my tenderbruised heart.
It was I created you - your very breath is my breath!
Like Amfortis in the preceding scene, Adam symbolically holds the mirror up to God through his words. It is a new kind of worship. Adam is made whole through this realization and the “wound of Amfortis” begins to heal. The “mark of Cain” is removed. “Adam” ceases to exist from that point. The circle is completed as god and man are one. The created is the creator.
1. The Collected Works of Carl G. Jung, Vol. 8, Translated by
R.F.C. Hull. Bollinger Series XX. Princeton University.
2. Ibid. Vol. 14, chapter 5.
3. Ibid. Vol. 11, Answer to Job.
Printed score available for purchase.
Performance ready parts available for rental.