The private life of Thomas Jefferson is the focus of the next Salon/Sanctuary Concert, “More Between Heaven and Earth.” On December 8, the third President’s correspondence and the music of his time will combine to shed light on his relationship with Maria Cosway, whose intellectual and artistic gifts — to say nothing of her beauty — fascinated him for the rest of his life.
Cosway was a painter who, later in life, founded a school for girls in Italy. Music formed an important bond between her and Jefferson, and “More Between Heaven and Earth” features not only the music that she and Jefferson heard together (notably Sacchini’s opera Dardanus, a tale of separated lovers) but also songs that Cosway herself composed for Jefferson. And because this is a Salon/Sanctuary concert, the venue matches the material: New York City’s venerable Fraunces Tavern, where Jefferson, as the first U.S. Secretary of State, kept his office.
Nowadays, we tend to focus more on Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings — his slave, his wife’s half-sister, and the mother of several of his children — a history fraught with the perversions of liberty in early America and the tangle of race relations ever since. But Jefferson’s relationship with Cosway was also revealing of his character. He met her in Paris, even while he’s believed to have fathered the first of Hemings’ children, and over this relationship, too, hung the specter of scandal.
Jefferson was a widower, Cosway was unhappily married, in an era when divorce meant social ruin; she was Catholic, besides, and subject to further proscriptions against divorce. History drove them apart, too, notably the French Revolution and the founding of the United States; they spent most of their lives separated by the Atlantic. Nothing could come of the attraction the two felt for each other, and yet that didn’t stop them from writing passionate letters that form the basis of Erica Gould’s script, performed by Melissa Errico (Cosway) and Campbell Scott (Jefferson), with Judith Hawking narrating.
“It’s nuanced,” Scott says, comparing the script to a great novel, in which “two really smart and educated people are expressing themselves. They’re missing each other, and it’s an odd, unrequited love. They’re very up-front about loving each other, but they can’t be together. It’s hopefully very sexy.”
As a self-described Italian–American romantic who relishes period pieces (“I’m all corsets, all the time,” she says, pointing to her role on the Cinemax series The Knick), Errico finds Cosway an irresistibly appealing part, and this isn’t the first time she’s joined Salon/Sanctuary for “More Between Heaven and Earth.”
“It’s being done in an exciting way,” she says. “We’re wearing period costumes, we candle-light the room, the other singers are up in the balconies in this historical space. It’s like going back in time. It’s certainly not a play that’s in a box: you’re surrounded by the era.”
The more Classical assignments in the concert will be fielded by soprano Jessica Gould and tenor Tony Boutté, with members of the instrumental group the Sebastians led by Jeffrey Grossman. But for Cosway’s songs, Errico will “step in front of the harpsichords” to sing.
More Between Heaven and Earth
Sunday, December 8, 6:00 P.M.
The Bissel Room, Fraunces Tavern
54 Pearl Street, New York
Script & stage direction by Erica Gould
Program concept & music research by Jessica Gould
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