Each of this summer's masterworks—the Sorrowing MotherThe Stranger, and The Thieving Magpie—tells of an innocent victim unjustly accused, and a maiden exquisite in her sorrow (in the operas, maid and victim are one). A scenic feature deeply shared by all three works, if less readily apparent, is a great old tree—a physical tree—with a hollow big enough to hide a person, which shelters, even saves, the heroine and those she holds dear. 

Henriette Méric-Lalande as Alaide, La Straniera, Teatro alla Scala, Milano, 1829

The Temptation of Adam and Eve

"How at the Castle of Corbin a maiden bare in the Sangreaal and foretold the achievements of Galahad," 1917

  • In medieval iconography, the cruel cross on which Christ suffers and expires becomes a Tree of Life for the healing of the nations. 

  • In La pie voleuse, the 1815 play which provided the basis for La gazza ladra, Annette (Ninetta) is asked to sell a silver place setting and leave the money in the "creux d'un vieux saule," the hollow of an old willow tree, to give her fugitive father enough to live on. (In the Italian version the willow becomes an old chestnut, "vecchio castagno.") 

  • And Agnes of Merania, the exiled Queen of France and eponymous protagonist of L'Étrangère (The Stranger, 1825), chooses to dwell in a forest clearing where she places a statue of the Madonna... in the "creux d'un vieux saule," beside a fountain from which she fills an antique chalice, her only possession from her father's court.

Tapestry 1. The Unicorn Is Found. The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Edward Burne-Jones: Lancelot in the Chapel of the Holy Grail, 1896. Southampton City Art Gallery.


Together Teatro Nuovo singers and players explored the imagery of chivalric epic and romance, with particular attention to the Grail, the Fountain, and the Tree of Life. We sat down under willow trees from Babylon to Hogwarts to Middle Earth to the Salley Gardens. Then we created our own: each person was prompted to draw a tree that could keep them, or their treasure, safe.