Before leaving for Paris—where I am studying for the semester—many of my friends instructed me to get lost in the City of Light and meander through the labyrinths of cafés and galleries. I have just emerged from a different sort of journey, less spontaneous but equally disorienting. Three nights, three concert halls, and three incredibly diverse programmes: from Bach (and not just the one you know) to Rameau to Mahler and Schoenberg. I had planned to go in chronological order—but I simply must tell you right away about the intimate Gurrelieder I just experienced at Opera Bastille.
The setting was familiar: Opera Bastille’s subterranean Amphitheatre. The pianist was familiar too. You may recall Marcelo Amaral, of Brazil, was a game partner for Carolina Ullrich here the other week. Too bad the piano was “a bit dead,” according to my guest, a masters student in piano here in Paris. The singing and playing certainly were not, however. A dramatic tenor, soprano, and mezzo-soprano—all German and all having sung major Wagnerian roles at the Paris Opera—were invited to get up close and personal for an evening of Mahler lieder and an intimate version of Schoenberg’s monstrous Gurrelieder. My kind of music, folks.
First up was soprano Michaela Kaune, who has sung just about everywhere besides the Met. She offered three of the best pieces from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). I love these songs (see below) for the subtle layers of tension Mahler sprinkles atop children’s melodies, yet I prefer an approach that uncovers playfulness through the vocal line itself rather than one which converts half the notes into Sprechgesang. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Lucia Popp opted for the former approach, while Ms. Kaune dipped into the latter.
Next came Mahler’s more well known Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a Wayfarer”) with turbocharged mezzo Janina Baechle. After endless Frickas and Brangänes in the world’s biggest opera houses, one might forgive Baechle and her colleagues for being slightly unaccustomed to an intimate recital space with nothing but a piano for company and with little distance between her and the audience. These are difficult pieces requiring immense control, and Baechle proved up to the task, yet the audience clearly noticed the effort involved. Though what was compromised in agility was more than made up by the vocal depth of Baechle’s committed performance.
And then, finally, the Gurrelieder. The massive cantata—100 minutes long, with around 150 instrumentalists and 200 singers—was first performed in 1913 with fivve soloists, a narrator, three four-part male choruses, a full mixed chorus, and a giant orchestra. (Those lucky Parisians: last March Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted a full-out mounting featuring the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.)
Gurrelieder (“Songs of Gurre”), which draws from poetry by Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, channels its forces to tell the tale of the Danish king Waldemar (heldentenor Torsten Kerl in a tireless tour-de-force), whose mistress Tove (a moving Ms. Kaune) is murdered by Waldemar’s jealous Queen Helvig. Schoenberg’s voice-piano version retains only the most crucial sung elements—Waldemar, Tove, and an earthy monologue for Waldtaube, the wood dove. Eliminated are the narrator, the fool Klaus (a tenor) and a peasant (a bass-baritone). To be honest, I hardly noticed.
Mr. Kerl—who made his Met debut last season in Die Frau ohne Schatten and has sung Siegfried here at Opera Bastille—appeared raring to go and he never fatigued in spite of Waldemar’s punishing tessitura, often descending into brooding baritonal depths and then returning in an instant to trumpet-like high notes. It was my first time sitting so close to a real, live heldentenor and I must say it was thrilling. Baechle was once again enthralling in her turn as Waldtaube. Yet the true hero of the night was Mr. Amaral, who had to work quite hard not only to conjure the atmosphere Schoenberg intended but also to match the three big voices with whom he shared the stage.
Overall I found this ‘chamber’ version allowed me to engage with the two main protagonists and the rich texts and incurably Romantic vocal lines assigned to their characters. (Is this really the same composer who gave us Moses und Aron?). While of course one yearns to hear the magnificent orchestral and choral parts, clearly the Paris Opera intended to present this piece as a true song cycle and they succeeded admirably. By contrast, it would be hard for me to imagine a recital featuring the vocal solos from Mahler’s similarly gargantuan Eighth Symphony, and perhaps this is a testament to the intrinsic beauty found within the Gurrelieder.
Okay—now that I have unloaded the Schoenberg we can rewind to Sunday and Monday for my Baroque binge.
My evening with Raphaël Pichon and his youthful Ensemble Pygmalion marked my introduction to the Cité de la Musique, a campus of musical institutions that has brought a great deal more auditory than visual pleasure to the people of northern Paris. It is currently also a construction site for what will be (starting in early 2015) a sparkling new concert hall, the €200-million Philharmonie de Paris.
Yet the existing Salle des Concerts proved a suitable venue for an often inspiring performance of Bach cantatas, including two settings of Es erhub sich ein Streit (“There arose a war”) first the one by Johann Christoph Bach followed by that of his cousin Johann Sebastian Bach. Aside from the first and last names of composers, the two settings bore little resemblance to one another, save for a certain military-like rhythmic drive. The cantata, after all, describes Michael and his angels combating a dragon.
As conductor, Pichon—30 years young—seems to trust his musicians and choristers, and his gestures were not indicative of an attempt to micromanage that which is best left to smart and prepared musicians. The chorus—part of the Ensemble Pygmalion—was exceptional, especially in the exciting opening to the younger Bach’s setting.
And as if two Bachs were not enough, we were treated to Heilig, a brief work by J.S. Bach’s son, Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach. Here the chorus split into two parts: the “chorus of angels” headed for the rafters of the hall and maintained remarkable coordination with their counterparts—the “chorus of the people”—who remained onstage.
Pichon enlisted four relatively young (sense a theme?) soloists for this demanding programme—six cantatas in all. Most impressive was English tenor Nick Pritchard, who brought confidence to his pieces and a voice notable for its clarity, focus, and legato. His smoothness reminds me somewhat of Pavol Breslik but perhaps with more beauty of tone.
Portuguese soprano Ana Quintans similarly never had to choose between agility and warmth, while countertenor Damien Guillon and bass Christian Immler also offered memorable contributions. This Bach binge received a warm response from the sleepy rainy-Sunday-in-Paris audience, and Pichon should be commended for overseeing such a spirited and tight collaboration.
After this excursion in Saint Michael’s Leipzig, I was reminded Monday evening that I am in France, bien sûr, and we the French are currently commemorating the 250th anniversary of Jean-Philippe Rameau, who succeeded Lully as France’s Baroque head honcho. To celebrate the occasion, the Théatre Champs-Élysées recruited conductor Hervé Niquet and director Christian Schiaretti to mount a production of Castor et Pollux.
Rameau’s 1754 opera tells of a rather unbalanced love trial: two brothers competing for the heart of Princess Télaïre (Omo Bello), yet one brother, Pollux (the baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer), is immortal, while the other, Castor (leggiero tenor John Tessier), faces inevitable death. Oh, how unfair!
The creative team should be applauded for the brisk pace: five acts in just over two hours! Yet reflecting on this brevity made me wonder why I found the evening so tedious. Answer: the endless and exhausting choreography by Andonis Foniadakis, who was loudly booed at the curtain call. His dancers, however, received the biggest ovation of the night for their sheer stamina.
In addition to the wonderfully delicate work by the orchestra and chorus—Le Concert Spirituel and the Choeur du Concert Spirituel—there was a great deal of intriguing singing from the leads. Bello, a French-Nigerian soprano who originally studied cell biology and genetics, has recorded Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, so I like her already. Though there was a certain lack of dynamic control that made me wonder whether Rameau’s music is perhaps more challenging (and certainly more exposed) than that of other Baroque folk.
Tessier (a fellow Canuck!) has braved the High “F” in I Puritani in Vienna and, by comparison, his turn as Castor appeared to be a walk in the park. I would have appreciated more dramatic and vocal presence, however, both of which were offered in spades by Crossley-Mercer (whose schedule, according to his website, appears strangely bare this year) as Pollux. Another Canadian, mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier—seen in the Met’s recent Faust—offered an engaging portrayal of Phœbé, who tries to prevent Pollux from reaching the underworld (don’t ask).
In terms of the physical production, I was somewhat taken aback to see that the set, by Rudy Sabounghi, is an exact continuation of the decor of the theatre itself—same gold trim, complementary colour scheme. I wondered if this is the set used by all opera productions at the Théatre Champs-Élysées. I will have to find out at the next staged opera production there, Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.