Overflow: November 2009 Archives
Love of Berlioz originates, I think, in wonder at and delight in his musical imagination. Of course, one wonders at and delights in the imagination of every creative artist whose work one loves, but there is something startling and forever fresh about Berlioz's musical imagination. I feel certain that he surprised even himself by some of his inventions. A friend asks how I can like Berlioz and not like Liszt; she finds creative parallels between them that I don't perceive. To me, Liszt is at best interesting, and if I were a much better pianist than I am I might enjoy trying to overcome the difficulties that his music sets up. (I remember Vladimir Ashkenazy saying, about learning the "Transcendental" Etudes, that although the music itself isn't "spiritual," the process of overcoming the technical difficulties became a spiritual difficulty.) But Liszt's music never touches me, whereas Berlioz's often does. It's true that Berlioz enjoys bombast and was second to none in his mastery of it: think of the "Rakóczy" March, the March to the Scaffold from the Fantastique, the last few minutes of the "Corsair" Overture, and much else. But think, also, of how he can create visceral excitement without resorting to bombast: the "Grande fête chez Capulet" in Roméo, the final section of the "Roman Carnival" Overture, the whirlygigging "Feux follets" in Faust, or the crazed and orgiastic but never bombastic ending of.Harold in Italy. And then there is the profundity of the emotional communication. I hear none of this in Liszt; to me, his music is decorative. Berlioz has inferior, ornamental, even wandering patches, but there is great depth in so much of his music.
And Berlioz is a conductor's delight. Old Weingartner and Toscanini and Monteux loved his music, and in our own day he has found first-rate exponents in Muti, Levine, and now (new to me in this repertoire) also James Conlon. (You'll ask: Where's Colin Davis? But something in me as a listener has never warmed to Davis in this or other repertoire, although he has certainly been one of the most dedicated Berliozians of our time.) This season, Conlon has taken over the Met's production of La Damnation de Faust, which Levine conducted when it was new last year, and he has brought to the score incisiveness and lyricism similar in concept to Levine's yet all his own. Robert Lepage's video-based production made the same impression on me this year as last: it contains much that is beautiful and fascinating but also much that is over the top - effect for effect's sake. But it feels familiar this year, and familiarity breeds... well, acceptance, in this case.
The cast was new. Ramón Vargas (Faust) may not have Marcello Giordani's dramatic presence, but he also doesn't have Giordani's constricted, strained sound in the middle-high register, which is where a lot of the part (and a lot of French tenor writing in general) lies. Olga Borodina is a fine Marguerite, but following in Susan Graham's footsteps is an ungrateful task. Ildar Abdrazakov is somewhat less dashing as Mephistopheles than was John Relyea, but the two are equals with respect to vocal and communicative power. The all-important orchestra and chorus (after all, Berlioz conceived this work as an oratorio-like, four-part "dramatic legend", not as an opera) were simply magnificent, this year as last. I'm hoping to go back for another performance, and I hope, too, that we won't have to wait many seasons before this this production returns to the Met's repertoire.
In thinking about the Met's singers in this work, I suddenly remembered Régine Crespin's comment to me - at the end of Plácido Domingo's Operalia competition in Bordeaux in 1996 - about the poor showing that young French singers had made in the previous days; the great French soprano attributed this outcome to bad voice teaching in her country's conservatories. I'm not in a position to judge the validity of her statement, and certainly there have always been some remarkable French singers. But it's true that the opera world could use a number of first-rate native French-speaking singers well versed in their country's repertoire. French is the most difficult "opera language" for non-natives to deal with. Italian- and Spanish-speaking singers have a particularly hard time of it because they're not accustomed to dealing with massive quanitites of diphthongs; a case in point is the wonderful Mirella Freni, who used to sing quite a bit of French repertoire beautifully but who rarely, in my experience, managed to pronounce correctly the short French e sound (as in the article le), which is present, I'd guess, in about a third of all French words. Germans, Russians, Brits, and Americans may have a slight advantage, but they don't seem to manage much better than their Latinate colleagues. None of the principals in this year's Damnation de Faust cast made the text intelligible even 30 or 40 percent of the time - and I found Renée Fleming's French diction just as mediocre in her otherwise remarkable performance of Messiaen's extremely difficult Chansons pour Mi at the New York Philharmonic's opening night concert, part of which I saw and heard on television.
I recall Domingo's story of a performance of La traviata in which he took part in Tel Aviv at the beginning of his career: he sang Alfredo in Italian, the Violetta did her part in German, the baritone performed his in Hungarian, and the chorus sang in Hebrew. The performance must have been both barbarous and hilarious, but presumably each singer's pronunciation was clear. Having multinational casts sing in languages that they can't pronounce properly presents an apparently insurmountable difficulty.