adapted from the short story

by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

an immersive opera in 7 testimonies

music by Christopher Cerrone

libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann

LIBRETTO—WORKING DRAFT in process • August 16, 2021



The Woodcutter/The Outlaw (Luther Harlow)—baritone

The Priest/The Medium—countertenor

The Policeman/The Settler (Ambrose Raines)—tenor

Leona Raines/Older woman (Narcissa’s mother)—soprano


Fl, Cl, 2 Perc, Harp, Piano/Keyboard, Violin, Cello, Electronics/Sound Designer

(The players will shift their positions in space as the opera unfolds.)


1921, Oregon; a landscape similar to that of Deschuettes, Malheur Counties or Siskiyou after multiple wildfires. A ghost forest caused by fire instead of salt.


We are still in the police station interrogation room.


You want me to talk?

You want me to talk?

You want me to talk?

I’ll talk.

I’ll hang no matter what I say.

But you should know I suffered a blow.

I hit my head hard enough (he shakes his head, closes his eyes and opens them, shakes his head again)

to blur

the edges of remembering.

Half way to Fossil Mine,

I look up.

I see a man leading a girl on a horse,

making their way towards me.

Strangers. The man and woman appear.

Out of place in these parts,

A breeze blows up,

the girl’s hat flies off,

her face—

her eyes—

I wanted her.

Then. And there.

Greetings, I call out.

There’s a grove

beyond the entrance to the mine,

where folks buried a small fortune.

Moonstones, silver,

pretty trinkets for the lady.

The girl’s eyes are far away.

The trove, I keep on.

I could use some help digging it up.

Just a few steps out of your way.

The man nods,

the man nods,

the man nods,

but the girl isn’t sold. LEONA


she urges them on,


she urges them on,

Ambrose, let’s go.

Down the road.


She tries again.


She tries again.

Ambrose, no.

She isn’t sold.


Why not?

What’s the harm in looking?

She sighs.

He just nods at me.

And we head towards 

the blackened husks of fir beyond the ridge—

But as we approach the turnoff to the grove,

she pulls on the reins.


I’m not going in there.


She says.

You go. I’ll wait.

The mare roots and shies.


I can’t leave you here, alone.

He insists. It’s not safe.

The girl holds her ground.

LEONA (trying not to let OUTLAW hear)

You think it’s safe

to follow god knows who—

I just want to give you something—


How do you know that he’s telling the truth?


I want to give you something—

I just want to give you something



Just go.


Come, through here, I say.

The treasure awaits.

He turns from her,

he takes my bait,

follows me in,

leaving her there, alone—

as we go crashing through the thicket

and into the grove.

As LEONA waits, THE OUTLAW seizes AMBROSE. They tussle. THE OUTLAW ties AMROSE with a rope to a tree and gags him with fallen leaves. Whether we see this or not is still to be determined. THE OUTLAW returns to LEONA, who is waiting, humming to herself to shut out the fear, alone.


Ambrose!? No!

She’d followed us in.

LEONA (knife drawn)
What have you done to him?

LEONA draws a knife and slashes at THE OUTLAW.


She lunges at me with a knife.

I knock the weapon from her hand.

She rams into him or tries to tackle him.

The girl is wild, fierce, lit.


I throw her in the brush—

blistered by

her burning eyes,

the heat of her,

the glare of her disgust—

as sharp as desire.

I don’t know how or when—

She slips from my hold,

disappears straight out from under me,

leaving me like a pile of dirt on the / ground.

LEONA picks up a stone and flings it at the OUTLAW. She is a crack shot.

A rock cracks against my skull.

Blinding, shooting pain,


When I can see again—sky spinning, lights flashing—

she’s slashing at his ropes,

slapping the fallen blade into his freed palm.

I pull myself, unsteady, up to stand.

But he hesitates.

She murmurs something

too quiet for me to hear.

He pales,

then he thrusts at me.

As they fight (with knives), LEONA grabs the rifle, aiming it at the brawling men.

Still stunned—the blow—

I am not myself. The trees tilt.

The man holds his own.

The girl picks up the gun, aiming it at us both.

LEONA points the gun into the sky and shoots. As AMBROSE turns towards her, confused as to whether he’s been shot (he hasn’t), THE OUTLAW stabs him. AMBROSE collapses. The OUTLAW looks up. LEONA is gone.

The grove as quiet as the grave,

save for the gasps of the dying man,

the rifle left lying on the moss.

I took the gun and fled.

I found the mare on the road.

The rest you know.

I’m as good as dead.

Might as well tell the truth.

I killed him.

I snuffed him out.

The girl—?

How should I know where she’s gone?

MUSIC. Interlude as the grove shifts, further enclosing the audience, taking on some sort of quality that’s different from the first. The quality of another kind of memory altogether. More heightened, less matter of fact.


Light that delineates a space that is not the police station. A mountainside chapel? A convent?


I have come to this place—

I have come to this place—

I have come to this place seeking refuge.

From what happened on the mountain.

From the truth.

I want nothing more

than to cover it up, block it out.

But you would have me remember, recount.

[A shift via MUSIC; a replay of the encounter we saw in scene 5, from a different point of view.]

Crossing Burnt Rock Pass

a man appears—

threadbare clothes, coiled rope.

Ambrose, always buried in his books, .

doesn’t seem to see the stranger’s ragged grin,

his rusted eyes cutting straight through me.



Just past the entrance to the mine

stands a grove of hemlocks—

buried there lies a cache of treasure,

left behind by some settler on the run.


And that’s all it takes.

My husband is entranced.


Moonstones, opals, silver filigree.


Opals, like your eyes,

he says.


Ambrose— It’ll be dark soon


I’ll be quick, I promise—


he replies, with that look of his,

so I can’t help but give in, give over—

when the stranger’s sneer stops me cold.

We don’t want anything to do with him, I whisper.

But Ambrose keeps on:


A windfall we could use—


But why—?


So I can keep you in—


I don’t need to be kept.


So I can provide—
Protect against—


(she steps out of the scene) Protect?

(and back in) Ambrose. Stay with me. Please.

But my husband, suddenly a stranger himself,

turns and goes—

As AMBROSE follows the man into the grove, leaving LEONA by herself, waiting.

disappears into the shadows.

He follows the drifter into the grove. Alone, LEONA sings a ditty to keep fear at bay.

Smoke, ash,

smoldering ghosts

of looming trees—

once stands of aspen, juniper. We see THE OUTLAW making his way towards her.

The man, emerging from the grove, alone

strides towards me.

Ugly, rough, he comes too close.

Hurry, come! Your husband, he’s—


I follow, keeping my distance,

calling on the cedar relics for protection.

MUSIC, as they move towards the grove.] Upon entering the grove, LEONA sees her husband bound and gagged.


Ambrose! LEONA moves towards AMBROSE.

The stranger cuts me off,

throws me,

holds me down.

His stench—

sweat, tobacco, metal, flint—

does not smother me,

I do not cry out.

I do not feel the hot damp of his breath

blasting in my face.

I hear nothing but

the sound of my own name




I twist out from under him,

[I] hide behind a tree.

A shift. The tension of quiet. LEONA, hiding behind a tree, grabs the knife from where it’s fallen on the ground. She picks up a stone and flings it at at the OUTLAW.

I hurl the stone.

It hits its mark. We see the rock cracking against his skull, the man staggering, crashing to the ground.

I grab my knife from where it fell.

My husband’s wrists are bound,

mouth, crammed full of leaves—

I undo the blindfold, cut his ties.

Ambrose, I plead.


Let’s leave this place. Come on. Let’s go.

But Ambrose just spits the last leaves from his mouth,

saying nothing

as the man stirs—

Ambrose, before it’s too late—

Take it. Take my knife. LEONA presses the knife into his hand. AMBROSE takes it, but doesn’t move.

Do something.

Now. I plead,

but Ambrose just murmurs.

AMBROSE (frozen, wooden)

My heart,


What did you say?


My heart. I can’t—

I don’t understand—


[My heart. It won’t—]


Ambrose! You brought us here, I lash,

as the man clambers to his feet.

Go on! Go on!

But Ambrose, still as a tree, A suspended moment.

doesn’t move,

he just looks through me— AMBROSE spins around, towards Luther, entering into combat. As they fight

(with knives), LEONA grabs the rifle, aiming it at them both.

Two smudges, slashing at the smoke—

I aim the rifle at their rabid strokes,

Ambrose, gaining now,

with a mettle I’d missed.


As his strength begins to wane,

as his strength begins to wane,

I point the muzzle towards the smoke-glutted sky.

I point the muzzle towards

We hear a loud gunshot. The echoing silence of its aftermath. The OUTLAW stumbles, flailing, thrusting the blade into his opponent’s side.

(she cries out) Ambrose—!

LEONA runs towards AMBROSE, dropping the gun.

Agrimony, yarrow, goldenrod

to stop the spilling blood.

I forage nettle, dock, pyrola

to staunch the wound—

I look up. The man is gone.

Agrimony, yarrow, goldenrod—

I know these things.

I can help him—

Crocus, to blunt the pain.

(With AMBROSE now, tending to him)

Look at me.

AMBROSE (looking away)

I can’t.

How could you?

How could you?


I heard, I saw.


Nothing. You saw nothing.


Moonstones, opals, eyes on fire—


for him.


In that moment I am like a tree,

heartwood cracked.

What we had is gone.

All the good done in


[AMBROSE breathes in, a strange sound.]

Ambrose. No.

A hollow rattle,

and he’s dead.

Agrimony, yarrow, goldenrod,

nettle, pyrola, dock.

Stunned by his scorn,

his sudden, stony hate,

I faltered—

I failed to apply pressure to the wound,

to staunch his bleeding,

to keep death at bay.

I failed.

It was me. I killed him.


I ram myself against a rock.

I carve a crevice in my skin.

I turn back.

Sun streaming through the blackened grove,

lighting up the body—

its pallor shines, it shone.

I run, blindly, through the woods,

hurtling down the steep,

flinging myself over ledge and precipice,

plunging into a black, bottomless pool,

weighed down with rocks.

I do not drown—

Stepping before a stampeding cart,

I endure,

bruised, but breathing still.

I stand before you a murderer—


What am I to—?

What am I to—?

What am I—?

INTERLUDE—During which the space shifts.


GUNSHOT. We are in a new reality. The vastness of empty space.



is the sound

of a heart

growing cold.

As the mountain

throws its shadow

across the hush

of the grove.


Cold heart, cold bones,

weak heart, [my heart was weak.]

Rheumatic fever

when I was three.

Sentenced, [once I’d grown,]

to [less than] half a life.

Weak heart. I was weak.

I couldn’t bear for her to know. THE OUTLAW

Greetings, good day.


Darkness falling.


We need to go.

So I kept it from her, [my heart]

[kept it] from me,

pushed it down,

under the skin

of who I was,

how I wanted to be



Greetings, good day.

I’m on my way to dig up 

[And so,] a haul the likes of which 

needing to prove you’ve never set your eyes on. 

I was invincible, [or: invincibility] Care to join me?

wanting to give her

the moon,

I fell for his ruse.


Opals? Moonstones?


Her glow so bright But you know I don’t care about—

I could hardly believe—

Was she mine?

Needing to prove—

I walked into his net,

left her waiting,

[his prey,]

alone. [we jump forward in time]

Blindfolded, bound,

my mind’s eye—

Sounds too terrible to—

As he lured her and took her,

as he used her,

as he broke her,

as, my back turned,

lashed, tied, I could do nothing.


Ambrose! [Do we see her throwing the stone? Untying him? ]


She stops him with a stone. Sky spinning, lights flashing—]


Look at me!

But I won’t.

Fearing the weakness

she seesLEONA

inscribed in me— I don’t understand.

Afraid to face my own

frailty [reflected] in her gaze,

My heart— I try to— Your heart?

I fail.

I should have told her then,

but I hated her

like I’d loved her—

swept up in a storm

of love and hate—

hated myself more than anything—

I was in too deep,

I’d dissembled away who I was.

My feebleness an afterthought,

I gave in to the fate

written on my leaky valves.

Less than half a life.


I pull myself up, unsteady—


I had no choice but to fight.

I faded soon enough.

(Reprise echo of decayed gunshot. As he’s dying)

Hating her for stepping in, LUTHER

hating myself more than anything, I grab the gun and go.

I hold it close—

my heart’s atrophy—


Agrimony, yarrow, goldenrod—

Ambrose, why won’t you look at me?

I heard, I saw—

I cut as she tends to me:

Nothing. You saw nothing.

I heard, I saw, I know—

Nettle, dock, pyrola.

I can help you—

You’re nothing to me,

I leave her with,

as I slide towards unknowingness,

letting her believe—

I failed to apply pressure to the wound—

And so I broke her.

It was me. I killed him.

And now—

There’s no turning back.

I can’t absolve her.

No matter how far she travels

from this blackened grove,

Heartwood cracked.

every time she shuts her eyes

she’ll see what she believes

she did to me.


I stand before you a murderer—


So I stay



splintered saplings,

a bed of broken fireweed,

trampled ground

lost, lurching through the emptiness,

haunted by her opal eyes, even in this dun,

blockaded by venom, dolor, remorse.

(We hear the chopping of the woodcutter.)


Silence is the sound of a heart

growing cold.

As the mountain [

throws its shadow

across the hush

of the grove,

hemlock fading,

birdsong flown,


the silence of the sky’s


as I fall into the arms

of unending dark[ness]—