The Prison Scene — Act I, Scene 2: an extended duet between Hester and Chillingworth

2008 | soprano/baritone/piano.

From The Scarlet Letter.

Libretto by David Mason (b.1954).

Later the same day, Hester is found in her cell, tending to her baby, Pearl, who is ill. Chillingworth enters, a doctor come to offer medicine, and the two recognize each other at once. “You know me,” he sings, and Hester acknowledges she had thought him dead for the past two years. As the two powerful figures relate the past, we learn that Chillingworth, much older than Hester, had convinced her to marry him when she was a young and innocent girl in England. He was a student of dark knowledge, alchemy and science, a man who felt cut off from life and hoped this young beauty might give him vitality. She was looking for a father figure. Chillingworth’s aria is at the center of the scene, his sense of physical deformity and age, his desire for love. Hester responds with the pain of mistaken youth, how lonely she had been arriving in the New World without her husband. The old man now turns angry that she remains so defiant, refusing to name her child’s father, and vows that he will discover who has sinned against him. When he has left, Hester sings her haunting lullaby to her daughter, Pearl, at the close of the scene. — David Mason