Mercury Fallingmonodrama for tenor, solo dancer and chamber ensemble based on the death of French sculptor Jean-Louis Brian
libretto by Daniel Neer
The only work exhibited at any of the Salons that Rodin ever singled out for praise was Jean-Louis Brians Mercury. This statue won a Medal of Honor at the Salon of 1864. Rodin called it one of the finest things in the world… Such force and beauty! The figure is a simple male nude at rest, in a conservative classical mode. Part of Rodins enthusiasm was an empathetic response to the story known by almost everyone in Paris: Brian had frozen to death in his unheated studio, having wrapped Mercury with the blankets from his bed so that it would not freeze and break apart.
— Ruth Butler, Rodin: The Shape of Genius
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 Brians 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 artists 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 artists studio and his increasingly grandiose expectations for his work of art.
A mature, but unappreciated sculptor is his late 50s, 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 Mercurys 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.