Riders of the Purple Sage Outline and Synopsis
There is a brief prelude that is wide in scope (western and grand) conflicted with a good love theme. It does not end but rather segues into Act 1, where we hear an energetic off stage men’s chorus. It is the Mormons coming to get Venters. We see Bern Venters and Jane Withersteen on the Withersten Ranch.. Tull arrives with the men and they quickly grab Venters and tie his hands behind his back. Tull accuses Venters of the shooting fray in the village of Short Creek last night, but Jane defends him saying he was with her. Tull accuses Jane of harboring a gentile and maybe even loving him. He continues by saying that Jane has always had sympathy for the Gentiles. It is in this moment that we learn about the Mormon power in this land and of Jane’s personal wealth left to her by her late father.
Aria: Tull says “ You’ll not be allowed to hold this boy in a friendship offensive to your bishop. Your father has left you wealth and power and it has gone to your head. You have not come to see the way of Mormon women. Now once and for all, you cannot have any further friendship with Venters.” We also learn here of Tull’s desiring of Jane and that the bishop has willed that Jane should marry Tull.
Jane realizes that Venters could be killed and backs down. She recalls her love for the land that her father left to her- “this wild and purple wilderness.” Must she acquiesce to their demands, send Venter’s away, and marry Tull? Tull prepares to whip Venters.
Enter Lassiter! He is heard and “seen” riding a wonderful horse from afar. The Mormon men wonder who he is and are a bit afraid of him. He asks for water for his horse, and then sees Venters tied up. He knows that gentiles are quick to be arrested and punished by the Mormons. Lassiter asks Venters what he did. Venters says that befriending this woman was his only sin. Jane begs Lassiter to save him. Lassiter confronts Tull and Tull threatens him. Lassiter draws. Tull asks who he is, and when he says “LASSITER,” the men are all frightened. He is an infamous gunfighter with a big reputation. They leave as Tull threatens to bring Jane back to the flock even if it means bringing her down.
We learn that Lassiter hates Mormons because of the influence they had on his late sister Millie Erne. (The Ballad of Millie Erne) Mille had been lured away from her husband and community by a charismatic Mormon preacher. He has come to the ranch looking for her, and is aware that Jane knows where she is buried. Jane says that Millie was her best friend, and that she prays for the time that the Mormon men will soften. Jane invites Lassiter and Venters to dinner. Venters leads Lassiter and his horse off to water leaving Jane on stage alone.
Jane wonders at her strange attraction to Lassiter and why the Mormon men were so scared. Has he killed Mormons? She knows that after today’s events, there will be trouble coming for her as well as Venters and Lassiter. Perhaps she can delay Lassiter here, and through her influence, keep him from killing again.
Curtain-orchestral interlude for scene change as night changes to morning.
The next morning Venters tells Jane he must leave. It is not good for him to be around especially if the bishop has ordered his ruin. Jane begs him not to go, but he says she is blinded by her faith. He tells her that she cannot possibly understand what these men will do to build their empire. She asks him about Lassiter, but Venter’s only knows that he was a formidable gunfighter and most recently a new friend who saved his life. They bid farewell in a plaintive duet (Jane , Don’t look so). Jane exits as Lassiter enters. Venters tells Lassiter that Jane had taken his guns, but that he has demanded them back. Lassiter asks him of Millie Erne. (Ballad of Millie Erne-part 2) Venters tells him that Millie had a child. She eventually began to question the Mormon ways and to fight for the right to bring up her child non-Mormon. So, the child came up missing and Millie never heard from her again. Millie became frail and died heartbroken. That was 12 years ago. Lassiter wants to know who the man was? Venters says only Jane knows and that red hot irons could not drive it out of her. Suddenly Jud enters. He says that Jane’s cattle (the red herd) have been captured and that Tull’s Gang is behind it. He tells tales of the mysterious masked rider who travels with these rustlers, and that nothing good happens when the masked rider is seen. Venters vows to get Tull against Jane’s protestations. He rides off as we hear the first “horse interlude”
Lights up on Venters. It is night and he is alone crouched at his campsite to try to see the rustlers. Suddenly, we hear the rustlers, and Venters readies his gun. They pass by Venters except two of them who remain behind. Venters gets up and is spotted in the sage by the two rustlers. One is the mysterious masked rider. The other rustler fires into the sage, and Venters fires two shots felling both men. Venters examines the bodies and discovers that the masked rider is still alive. He turns the masked rider over and discovers that it is a woman ! (all of the previous action in this scene is done in pantomime and not sung ) She begs him not to take her back before she collapses in his arms.
End of act 1.
Curtain up on Jane alone. We hear the sound of a hymn being sung in the valley below. She looks to the heavens and addresses her deceased father asking for guidance. How can she reconcile the loving word of God and the cruelty of men?
Jud enters and tells Jane that Tull came to his house and warned him never to ride for her again. He confesses his faithfulness to her nonetheless. He tells her that the herd has been scattered and Venters has disappeared. Jane is furious. Jane knows that hate is wrong and struggles to reconcile this feeling towards the elders of her church. She has been told ”to do her duty for her church and people and those dependent upon her bounty-to hold reverence of god and womanhood inviolate.” She is reconciled to the loss of her cattle but will NEVER sell out by marrying Tull.
Lassiter rides up and warns Jane that she is in danger. He says he will stand by her because she showed Millie Erne such kindness. She says she will accept his help and friendship if it will keep him from killing another Mormon. He asks again for the name of the man who corrupted Millie Erne and once again Jane refuses to tell him. Suddenly we hear a distant rumble. Lassiter realizes the herd is stampeding and being brought right down on them. Lassiter rides off to avert the herd. The curtain falls and second horse interlude plays, representing the stampede and Lassiter’s control of the cattle. It will be an excerptable concert piece full of tension, passion, etc. It segues into:
Surprise Valley. It is a glorious place. Venters enters carrying the masked rider (Bess). He lays Bess down gently. He tells her of this hidden valley, and that there is ample water and food. He tells of a balanced rock, placed there by the ancients, that guards the entrance, and that if it is toppled, the valley will be closed forever. The valley shows no sign of occupation after the departure of the ancients, and it is very hidden and safe for her. He tells her that he came to Utah and became a rider, and then how the Mormons had made him an outcast because of his friendship to Jane. She tells him that she is the famous “masked rider” and that though her reputation is large, that she has never harmed anyone, or stolen anything. She remembers little of her childhood. This scene is a big duet that culminates in their new-found lives and mutual affection for one another. She says that she wishes Venters to dislodge the rock and trap them in this paradise forever. Venters reassures her that his life did not begin until he found her, and they will leave this hardened land to get to Illinois. Eventually he leaves to get supplies for them.
After the interlude, we are at Jane’s house and Bishop Dyer has arrived. He asks her about Lassiter. She explains that he is a gunman with a hatred for Mormons, but that she has been doing her best to change him. She tells him that Lassiter has come to avenge the death of Millie Erne. The bishop berates her for not marrying Tull and not following the ways of her faith and people. She accuses the bishop of corrupting the faith. He grabs her by the hair and forces her down to her knees. At that moment, Lassiter enters. The bishop draws on him and Lassiter draws back. Jane begs Lassiter to spare the bishop. The bishop rides off. As Lassiter comforts a distraught Jane, a duet ensues. He recognizes her strong faith and generosity to all and then confesses his respect for her. He tells Jane that for years he has been a lonely man, a ranger set on one thing-getting revenge for Millie, and then he met Jane. Jane asks Lassiter to take off his guns. Lassiter sings The GUN SONG, about how a man without a gun is half a man. He accuses her of Mormon blindness, but she says that saving a life is a divine value, God’s law –universal. He accuses the Mormons of empire building under the guise of religion.
Venters then rides in. Jane is delighted to see him. He tells them of the beautiful valley and the balanced rock and of Bess (aria) He tells them that he is taking Bess to Illinois. The ever generous Jane offers Venters supplies from her stores. Venters bids them farewell and exits. Jane asks Lassiter if he would like to see Millie’s grave.
Millie’s grave. Lassiter and Jane sing of the sage, the peaceful setting, the well-deserved rest of a good woman. (Ballad of Millie Erne- part 3) Jane discovers that Millie was Lassiter’s sister. Lassiter presses and Jane tells him it was Bishop Dyer who abducted her. Lassiter’s blood boils and he sings a climactic reprise of The GUN SONG, lamenting his missed opportunity and his firm resolve to find Dyer and kill him. He runs off as Jane swoons.
Tull and Dyer sing about their faith, their absolute adherence to it, and how this system keeps things in place. (Duet- They Must be Led) They sing of Jane’s insubordination, her rejection of Tull, the value of her land and water and how they’ve been rustling her cattle to get her to give in, marry Tull and become a good obedient Mormon woman. The two men cement their agenda. The holy word of the law must be respected, by threat of death, if necessary.
Bishop Dyer is preaching a sermon at the church. Lassiter is outside the meeting pondering his next move. The meeting builds to a dramatically reverent pitch (Come Come Ye Saints) when Lassiter enters and interrupts the service. He calls the bishop out for what he did to Millie, and demands to know what happened to her daughter. Bishop Dyer says he raised her as a good Mormon woman, saving her from a life as a hell-bound gentile and disguising her as the masked rider. Lassiter is caught off guard. Seeing that Lassiter is not paying attention, Dyer grabs for his gun, but alas, not fast enough. Lassiter kills him and then runs off.
We are at Jane’s place. Lassiter, stumbles in. He tells her he killed Dyer. There is no going back. Revenge did not taste as good as he thought it would. He surrenders to Jane’s wishes and allows her to take his guns. “You’ve done this to me”, he says. “I’ve saved you”, she replies. They both reconcile that their former lives are now over. Lassiter tells her that Tull and his men will be trailing him and that they must leave. Lassiter has had his bitter revenge, and Jane must leave to free her heart and mind to allow her faith to flourish. Jane gives Lassiter back his guns accepting that they may be needed. Lassiter suggests that maybe they go to Illinois with Venters and Bess (his only surviving family). The stage splits and we see Bess and Venters also leaving Surprise Canyon and Tull’s men coming after Lassiter and Jane, culminating in a huge ensemble. At the climax, Jane torches her house and fields to deny Tull the use of them, and they head out.
Horse Interlude #3 and FIRE Music
Jane, Lassiter, Venters and Bess all meet as Venters and Bess are leaving Surprise Valley. Lassiter reconciles with Bess and all four agree to head to Illinois. However, Tull’s men are closing in. Lassiter realizes that he will need to stay behind to protect the others as they escape. Jane insists on remaining behind with him. She tells Bess and Venters to “Ride through the Purple Sage and let the horses fly!!” They exit. Jane and Lassiter climb to the ridge and see that the young lovers have escaped successfully. They climb into Surprise Valley. Tull follows them into it. Lassiter rolls the balanced rock and the mountain collapses. Tull and his men are buried. Eden is reclaimed as Lassiter and Jane are trapped in paradise.
END OF OPERA
Though written 100 years ago, RIDERS OF THE PUEPLE SAGE is a curiously contemporary story about religious fundamentalism, the role of women in socie,ty and gun control. Jane’s pure faith is contrasted with Tull’s corrupt faith. Lassiter arrives without any tolerance for religion, but is changed by Jane’s unerring beliefs even so far as to “sacrifice” himself (very biblical) for the young lovers. The lovers (Venters and Bess) are merely trying to find their way in this corrupt world, and it is their love which drives them. All horse scenes will be accomplished in music (and possibly video) much like Britten’s Sea Interludes in Peter Grimes, so that real horses are not required. The large metaphor, especially at the end, is how to recapture Eden.