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In the first scene Prince Henry sits alone and ill in a tower of the Castle of Vautsburg on the Rhine. It is midnight and he longs for sleep and peace (“I cannot sleep!”). Suddenly there is a flash of lightning and Lucifer appears, disguised as a travelling physician (“All hail, Prince Henry”). The ‘doctor’ learns that the Prince has been told by the celebrated physicians of Salerno that there is only one cure for his malady: the blood of a maiden who shall freely die for his sake. Regarding the cure as impossible, Prince Henry, in despair, allows Lucifer to tempt him with alcohol (“This little flask”) to which – despite the warnings of the guardian Angels – he succumbs (“Through every vein”).
A lyrical string interlude opens Scene 2, evoking the quiet evening described by Ursula (“Slowly, slowly”). The villagers are gathered outside her house after their day’s work and as the lamps are lit inside they sing an evening hymn (“O gladsome Light”). Prince Henry, passing by, hears them and adds his personal ‘Amen’ before the villagers disperse to their homes. Ursula and her daughter Elsie hear the Prince (“Who was it said ‘Amen’?”). Elsie wishes that she could cure his dreadful sorrow and pain and, learning the sacrifice this must entail, offers her life. Her mother pleads with her but Elsie is convinced that she has seen her fate in a vision of Christ beckoning her to Heaven. Left alone, Elsie, prays to Christ that her sacrifice may bring her closer to Him (“My Redeemer and my Lord”). Prince Henry overhears and approaches Elsie as angels sing ‘Amen’. Slowly they pass into the house and darkness falls.
Scene 3 finds Prince Henry, Elsie and their attendants on the road to Salerno (“Onward and onward”). The couple delight in each other’s company but the Prince cannot forget the fate that waits for Elsie. They turn down a green lane and soon come upon a band of weary pilgrims chanting the Hymn to Saint Hildebert (“Me receptet Sion illa”). Lucifer, again disguised – now as a friar – is amongst them (“Here am I, too, in the pious band”). He mocks the pilgrims and gloats over the fate of Elsie, for he has plans of his own for her. The pilgrims pass on, their chant fading in the distance. Prince Henry and Elsie continue on their journey. As evening descends they reach a height overlooking the sea and make camp. The Prince and Elsie in turn contemplate the vastness of the sea and the clear night sky (“It is the sea”). Both are uneasy as each vista conjures up ghostly visions that disturb their new-found happiness (“The night is calm”).
Scene 4 is set in the Medical School at Salerno. Lucifer, now disguised as a doctor, awaits the Prince and Elsie (“My guests approach!”). His plan is now clear: posing as Friar Angelo, he intends to perform the sacrificial rite and claim Elsie’s soul not for God but for himself. But he is fearful that he may yet be thwarted. Prince Henry presents Elsie to the ‘friar’. Still she is resolved to die; but as she is taken away the Prince intervenes: he had wished only to test her devotion. Lucifer bars the door but the attendants break it down and Elsie is saved from death and eternal damnation.
Ursula waits anxiously for news of her daughter. At the opening of Scene 5 she is alone in her cottage when through the open door she sees a forester, dressed in the Prince’s livery, approach (“Who is it coming under the trees?”). He tells Ursula that Elsie is alive (“Your daughter lives”) and she gives thanks to the Virgin Mary for the life of her child (“Virgin, who lovest the poor and lowly”).
Scene 5 is set on a terrace of the Castle of Vautsburg, where Prince Henry and Elsie stand alone on the evening of their wedding day (“We are alone”). As the bells of Geisenheim ring in the distance, the Prince tells how Charlemagne had heard these same bells many years ago. He goes on to tell of Fastrada, the emperor’s wife, who died and whose golden ring her inconsolable husband cast into the waters of a lake. In Elsie’s eyes he sees the blue of those deep, calm waters, and, beneath them, shining like Fastrada’s ring, the selfless love she has for him.
The Choral Epilogue adds a final comment. Just as the rain brings life to the arid land, the Prince’s malady is cured by love (“God sent His messenger, the rain”). To Elsie, faith and selflessness bring their immortal rewards. Her story, written in characters of gold, shall burn and shine through every age thereafter.
from notes by David Russell Hulme © 2001
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