Andrew Ford - composer
Sue Smith - libretto

Rembrandt’s Wife (2008)

Librettist’s note

The idea of Rembrandt’s Wife first came to me some years ago in an exhibition of Rembrandt’s etchings. Accompanying one of his later works was a biographical note: because of shifting bourgeois tastes in the staunchly Calvinist Holland of his time, Rembrandt’s work had fallen from fashion. Already financially stretched from repaying a breach of marriage contract to his former mistress, Rembrandt was declared bankrupt. At his lowest ebb, he was forced to sell the marble headstone and gravesite of his late much loved wife, Saskia. This struck me as a powerful metaphor for the way in which even the great can be compromised and destroyed by the vicissitudes of fashion.

Once Andy and I began work on the story, other themes began to emerge: principal among them was Rembrandt’s savage purity in maintaining artistic integrity at the personal cost of bankruptcy and humiliation; and the even more devastating carnage wreaked by that same refusal to compromise on the lives of those who loved him, especially the three women: the dead wife, Saskia; the spurned mistress, Geertje Dircx; and his late, great muse, Hendrickje Stoffels. Does greatness justify bad behaviour? A rich dramatic seam to mine for opera, even further textured by the repression and hypocrisy of Calvinism, and the fact that these lives were lived – day by day, brushstroke by brushstroke – in the shadow of bubonic plague.

Rembrandt’s artistic output was so immense it was difficult to choose which works to feature. Eventually, the ones that most spoke to the dramatic journey were his silverpoint on vellum sketch of Saskia, drawn during their courtship; his tender rendering of the little kitchen maid in Girl at an Open Door; the ravishing Bathsheba – a portrait of Hendrickje at the height of her voluptuous beauty; and the brutal and visceral Slaughtered Ox – perhaps a representation of Rembrandt’s own spiritual state, the flesh and sinews metaphorically hanging from his soul.

In the end what is left of Rembrandt is the work – the thing he clearly lived for. We may not like the man, but you need only gaze at Bathsheba or The Night Watch or any of the hundreds of others to know that we cannot deny his greatness. Yet we should also honour the other lives that were lived – and sacrificed – in service to this greatness. They are, invariably, women’s lives … But despite everything, it’s impossible not to feel a sneaking admiration for a man who tried conformity and respectability and moral rectitude, only to find that his nature precluded them, his genius outgrew them, and his dedication to his own muse was too strong to be compromised by them. Unrepentant, stubborn, difficult … and a genius. And, in the words of Simon Schama: never confuse a genius with a saint …

 

Sue Smith
March 2009