Though the novel’s structure and texture are often compared to musical forms such as Wagnerian music-drama, who would attempt to turn Proust’s A la Recherche de Temps Perdu into opera? Not even Berlioz would have had such hubris. (Offenbach, peut-être?) Attempts to translate the enormous novel into any other art seldom have much success. Perhaps an entirely new sort of mixed medium is the way to go.
This is the calculated choice of pianist Sarah Rothenberg (also described as a “creator of interdisciplinary productions”), whose unusual theater-work, A Proust Sonata, is being given a three-evening run (through tonight) at FIAF’s Florence Gould Hall on East 59th Street.
Is this an opera? We can pretty securely say it is not. But what is it? We have song, violin and piano recital, chamber music concert, acting, narration and interaction, video and photographic reflection, set in the context of Proust’s novel and the life he spent writing it, but also including the words of others, notably his unassuming housekeeper, Céleste Albaret.
For music, Rothenberg calls upon Proust’s friends and acquaintances and inspirations, notably Fauré, Debussy and Reynaldo Hahn. There is Schumann to remind us of Geneviève de Brabant on the boy Marcel’s magic lantern (Schumann made the story into an opera) and there’s a morsel of Beethoven quartet—Proust used to invite Paris’s leading quartet to play unfashionable late Beethoven in his cork-lined bedroom, and the Daedalus String Quartet provides a gracious reading of the Opus 135’s Lento.
Fauré’s first piano sonata becomes Vinteuil’s sonata in the novel, as delicately performed by Boson Mo. Rothenberg provides Chopin and Debussy for the nocturnal fêtes in the garden at Combray and the seaside at Balbec.
There are songs by Debussy, Delafosse, Fauré and Hahn, sung by Nicholas Phan, who is one of the more intriguing artists of his generation specializing in the song repertory. For the voice lover these may be the choicest morceaux on this generous assiette. Phan possesses a deceptively delicate voice, caressing phrases and savoring colors, filling the room as his lofty phrases soar.
The moody dreams of Fauré’s “Ici-bas” and Hahn’s “Rêverie” depict the woolgatherings of the author. Against a backdrop of the Paris Opéra (Marcel is listening on the telephone, a “modern” service he describes in the novel), Phan becomes theatrical; in a lady’s salon, he is genteel. Each word is clear, but there are no subtitles: the mood is more important to the piece than the actual lyrics.
Henry Stram (as Proust) and Nancy Hume (as Celeste) provide narration and some background to the simple action, dwelling on Proust’s dissection of experiencing music and art, taken from several translations of the novel. There is enough to give a clear idea of what is going on to anyone unfamiliar with the novel. We are going to bed as a child, we are walking down a long, rural allée, we are hearing music, we are studying Vermeer’s View of Delft, we are remembering, writing, dying.
The drama is enhanced by projections (by Hannah Walewski) of photographs, paintings, collages, scenes. A Whistler sea wavers over texts of Marcel’s manuscript memoirs while Ravel and Debussy describe it. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting focuses our attention on one performer or another, or the gentleman drowsing on his bed, taking it all in.
The sets and costumes are by Marina Draghici, who draws on the more modest, drawing-room styles of the Belle Epoque, heightening interest with iridescent blues for Rothenberg, rose-colored stockings for Phan. Hume, as Celeste, is naturally in housemaid’s dress; Stram, as Marcel, is in drab shades: It is other people’s coloring that impresses him. He has a curious repeated gesture, a twirling of his hand, as if winding the watch that isn’t there. He is in search of lost time.
No, it’s not an opera, and it’s not exactly the sort of mixed salon musicale that Marcel’s hostess friends like Madame Verdurin used to present. (She was an intellectual; she liked Wagner.) It is a highly original theater piece making use of contemporary sounds and sights (and modern technology) to summarize the vast masterpiece, creating a serene occasion.
I was reminded of another Proustian réméniscence, some years ago at Town Hall, when Cathy Berberian, dressed by Erté in violet silk, lace and feathers, impersonated a singer at a Belle Epoque salon, daring us to object to her flawless renderings of Scottish ballads, temperance moral songs (“Father’s a drunkard and mother is dead”), Beethoven sonatas “set to words so as not to go to waste as mere piano music” and songs by Reynaldo Hahn, “who has been introduced to our hostess by Marcel Proust, a literary gentleman.” It was a superb recital, a high-class comedy act and terrific theater all at once.
Miss Rothenberg, at her piano, and her well-chosen collaborators, have created a similarly uncategorizable and delectable event.