Synopsis of the Libretto
Feder, sets the scene and introduces himself as a friend of the Zweigs. Feder’s commentaries are always in retrospect.
Stefan and Lotte arrive in the house in Petropolis, and they sing about the new start in life they are making in Brazil. Lotte is more optimistic that Stefan. They plan to focus on finishing Stefan’s memoire, The World of Yesterday.
Feder suggests that something untoward happened to the Zweigs but doesn’t say what.
The action takes place on the terrace in Petropolis, with sheets of paper everywhere. Stefan and Lotte are working on the memoire, and comment on their solitude, Lotte favourably, but Stefan with some pessimism. Stefan’s gloomier outlook is contrasted with his own more joyful reminiscence of arriving for the first time in Rio de Janeiro in 1936. Rio is viewed as an erotic, sensual location.
Feder expresses his regret for being a part of their lives for only a short time.
Feder visits Stefan and Lotte, bringing some volumes by Montaigne. Lotte has asked Feder to take a photographic portrait, much to the embarrassment of Stefan. He insists she be in the photograph too. Lotte and Feder try to relax Stefan, and he finally dispels the tension by making a joke, pretending to read something ‘of great importance’ for the photograph, which is in fact a shopping list. A new moment of tension arises when they recall (for the purposes of the memoire) a visit to a prison in São Paulo. The ‘inmates’ are here played by the instrumentalists, and as they play in Zweig’s honour Haydn’s ‘Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser’, memories of his former life in Austria flood in, he panics, and then flees the stage.
Feder comments on Zweig’s increasing pessimism, and hints at their subsequent extreme decision.
Feder vists the Zweigs again. Stefan is in a good mood, and hence Lotte is too. Lotte has been trying to teach their maid how to cook Viennese delicacies, and all three are briefly carried back to the old world by this Proustian impulse. Zweig’s thoughts go back to his position in the highest circles of European society, and a list of names of the intellectual elite, and this list is set to the same music as the list of Viennese delicacies. The mood darkens as his thoughts turn to the man who swept all this away. Stefan comments that his mother-tongue feels useless. Lotte comforts him, and Stefan sings a reminiscence of pre-war Vienna. The music combines Viennese kitsch in the form of Girardi’s Fiakerlied, with sombre commentaries by the ensemble.
Feder relates how he and the Zweigs drove to see the carnival in Rio. But even this diversion could not pull Stefan out of his depressive mood.
Feder walks in on Stefan, who holds his head in his hands. We see newsreel reporting the fall of Singapore. He is further devastated because he can no longer write in German to the US. His mother-tongue is now the language of the enemy. He evokes the role call of the dead in Europe; here the libretto parallels the role-call of the great and good of European society in the previous scene. This list ends with Sigmund Freud, and it’s clear that of all of these names, it is Freud’s he reveres the most. Stefan’s only comfort is in the volume of Montaigne which Feder has lent him. Montaigne is Zweig’s last bastion of hope in European civilization. Of his formerly encyclopedic collection of manuscripts by the great Eurpean composers, almost nothing remains. Feder argues that the music still exists, even if Stefan no longer possesses the manuscripts. The discussion is interrupted by Lotte’s fit of asthmatic coughing. Feder, in a mistaken attempt at jocularity, impersonates Zweig’s hero, Freud, and ‘analyses’ Zweig’s obsessive collection of manuscripts through Freud’s theories of anal retention. In doing so, he destroys at one and the same time Zweig’s last hopes which are anchored in both Freud and his collection of ‘great’ manuscripts. Zweig walks off, unable to bear it. Lotte, alone with Feder, sings an apologia for Zweig, and says she’ll follow him ‘wherever he goes’.
Feder confesses in retrospect his own insensitivity, and curses his crass humour.
Feder, realizing what he has done, apologises to Lotte. Stefan comes back, and symbolically returns the volume of Montaigne to Feder: his faith in European civilization is destroyed. Stefan and Lotte speak about their lives in the past tense, as if they are already over. Feder sings the same line, but for him it only means he fears that their friendship is over.
Feder, in retrospect, wonders what happened in their final moments, since he didn’t see them after that. He tells u it was the last time he saw them alive.
Stefan and Lotte sing about their lives and are reconciled to their decision to ‘quietly, with dignity, to leave the stage’.
We don’t see them take the Veronal which killed them, but they drink a final toast to each other, and the opera ends in an evanescent evocation of memory and poetry. Stefan and Lotte’s last duet is a setting of Verlaine, ending with the verse “No more words,/No more light;/ Hope has fled, defeated,/ Towards the darkened sky.”