Recording of “The Rarer Action” from the Wellesley Composers Conference, July 2012

Shakespeare’s The Tempest finds Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan and a learned magician, stranded on a remote island. Twelve years prior his own brother, Antonio, had conspired with his rival Alonso, King of Naples, to depose him. When Prospero divines that Antonio and others are on a ship passing close to the island, he conjures a tempest that wrecks the ship, bringing those who have wronged him ashore. Prospero then uses his powers and those of his servant, the spirit Ariel, to torment Antonio, Alonso and the others. But Prospero cannot sustain his quest for vengeance indefinitely. In this scene from the play’s last act, Ariel reports to Prospero on the suffering of his enemies, saying that “if [he] now beheld them, [his] affections would become tender…Mine would, sir, were I human.” Prospero responds:

 “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
   Yet with nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
   Do I take part. The rarer action is
   In virtue than in vengeance.”

Believing them penitent, Prospero prepares to cast a a powerful spell to restore his enemies, end their punishment and, most importantly, exorcize his own demons. The Rarer Action traces the fantastic invocations of Prospero’s final spell and his (arguably) tragic resignation from magic. It concludes with a representation of Prospero’s enemies immobilized in the circle he had traced on the stage. The ending – the distant glow of a major triad in the piano and feeble, flickering crotales – invokes the ambiguous tone of the play’s end, best summarized by Prospero’s final monologue:

 “And my ending is despair,
  Unless I be relieved by prayer,
  Which pierces so that it assaults
  Mercy itself and frees all faults.
  As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
  Let your indulgence set me free.”


Mary Nessinger, mezzo-soprano
Barry Crawford, flutes
Sarah Crocker, violin
Joshua Gordon, cello
Stephen Paysen, percussion
Ben Paysen, percussion
Christopher Oldfather, piano
James Baker, conductor

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