Details of The Juniper Passion
Monte Cassino: A significant event in New Zealand history
The Juniper Passion is set amidst the protracted warfare of Monte Cassino, 1944. The battle of Monte Cassino stands as a significant event in our history that claimed the lives of 343 New Zealanders. Many of our people have personnel connections to those who served in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
The opera shifts between 1944 war-struck Europe and 1960 small town New Zealand. An enchanting opening presents the ritualistic intonation of Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Meanwhile Helen, the daughter of a Second World War soldier, walks the line of graves with her mother, Jessie, searching for their late father and husband. Thus the two women fortuitously meet with their German and Italian counterparts.
Previously, in 1944, the Germans have built fortifications around the Abbey. Ancient artifacts are being removed to preserve them from the controversial American bombing. Bruno, a German officer, decides he will gift the Juniper Madonna statue to his commander – however one of the monks, Carlo, replaces it with a log of wood. When Bruno discovers this, her returns to seek revenge. Joe, Helen’s father and Jessie’s husband, and interrupts the tryst. Thus, in the bombed out crypt of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, these three men must confront one another which in turn causes them to scrutinise their differing philosophies and beliefs. This conflict builds to a dramatic and tragic final scene, and the opera closes with an epilogue between Jessie and the ghost of Joe.
Remembering NZ armed forces
John Davies’ libretto is dedicated to Richard Ferguson Davies – John’s father who fought in the battles. Almost four years in the making, The Juniper Passion remembers New Zealand’s armed forces, and is dedicated to soldiers from all sides who fought this at Monte Cassino.
Opera informed by historical fact
University of Waikato Distinguished Alumnus Dr Chris Pugsley provided valuable historical insights about the battle, the bombing of the abbey and its aftermath. This information was translated into the musical retelling of the story through chamber orchestra, electronic sound effects and the new Auckland Town Hall organ. The overarching story is based on fact, while the characters – a Benedictine monk, a German officer and New Zealand soldier – are fictional.
A visit to Monte Cassino
In 2008 Michael Williams visited the town of Cassino and the Monastery on Montecassino. Williams wanted to experience first hand the place he would be composing about. He kept a journal of his impressions, which have had a real impact on the creation of The Juniper Passion.
“28 November, 2008: Arrive in Cassino late afternoon; warm and wet. Stayed in a B & B replete with war memorabilia. A sever thunderstorm on this night. Torrential rain and lightning. The first glimpse of the Abbey is through mist and clouds, perched at the top of the mountain. Impressive, ominous and austere.”