Like all myths, Twelfth Night seems to have existed long before Shakespeare wrote it, and certainly before any of us first saw or read it. I can’t remember a time when I was not enchanted by the heady perfume of Illyria, where “journeys end in lovers meeting.” My enchantment led almost against my will first to a version of the Fool’s songs, and finally, to setting the play as a full-length opera. In adapting the play as an opera libretto, I was naturally forced to recombine the scenes in various ways, and to cut much of the play, leaving only a scaffolding on which to base the opera. Above all, I was fascinated by Shakespeare’s presentation of the extraordinary varieties of love, by the various ways in which we all yearn for our “true love’s coming, that can sing both high and low.” A sister and brother, impossibly identical twins, are swept up on the shores of Illyria: their adventures become a very funny and sympathetic story of the dissolution of gender and sexual identity into a magical flux.
Twelfth Night opens with a primal scene: in the midst of a raging storm, the two identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, call to each other as they are separated in the wreck of their ship. Each believing the other has drowned, they are swept up on the shore of Illyria. On opposite sides of the stage, Viola is saved by a Captain, and Sebastian is saved by Antonio, who plainly becomes attracted to the young man. In the meantime, the Captain tells Viola that Illyria is ruled by the Duke Orsino, who loves the Countess Olivia. Olivia has refused the Duke, however, as she is in mourning for her dead brother. Viola decides to disguise herself as a page and serve Duke Orsino. Reluctantly the Captain agrees to help her.
In a Quartet, Viola, Sebastian, Antonio and the Captain withdraw into their own thoughts as they are about to move into the world of Illyria. Viola indeed becomes the page-boy of Orsino, using the name Cesario. The Duke is very attracted to the young boy, and in turn Viola falls in love with him. The Duke sends Viola to seek the hand of Olivia, but in their encounter, Viola, hopelessly in love herself, expresses Orsino’s love for Olivia so eloquently that Olivia falls in love with the “page-boy.”
That night, Orsino, and Viola listen to Feste, the fool, sing of hopeless love; Viola tries to tell Orsino that Olivia cannot love him. Orsino realizes that “Cesario” has experienced love and she describes how her “father had a daughter loved a man” but never revealed her love. Orsino is very moved. In the meantime, the members of Olivia’s household, furious at the steward Malvolio’s arrogance and aggression, decide to humiliate him. A letter is written, leading Malvolio to believe that Olivia is in love with him. Malvolio enters, already half convinced of Olivia’s love; he reads the letter and determines to follow its instructions completely; he will wear cross-garters and yellow stockings; he will smile; he will be surly with Toby. Toby and his friends Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian witness his transformation, and they look forward to his appearance before Olivia.
In the meantime Olivia sends a ring to “Cesario,” and Viola realizes to her dismay that Olivia has fallen in love with her. After many complications, Sebastian arrives, Olivia mistakes him for “Cesario,” and they pledge their love. In the end, Viola and Sebastian find themselves face to face in front of almost all the other characters. After a joyful reunion between the two twins, all the erotic complications are sorted out, and there is nothing left but to sing with the Fool, Feste,
A great while ago the world begun,
With heigh, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.