Karina Gauvin sings Britten’s Les Illuminations with TSO

Karina Gauvin, soprano
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor
Toronto Symphony Orchestra 

Fauré: Pelléas et Mélisande
Britten: Les Illuminations for Soprano and String Orchestra
Brahms: Symphony No. 4

What Gauvin can do with this song cycle we already know thanks to the ATMA Classique CD from 2009, which the soprano recorded with Les Violons du roy and the same conductor, Jean-Marie Zeituni, that we saw last night with Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Even so, the flawless recording pales in comparison with the live performance.

The first obvious thing was Gauvin’s charisma and a kind of sexy exuberance and [Fernando is right] sophistication. Then there is her absolute command of the text. Rimbaud’s song cycle has no discernable narration or drama. It consists of dissociated impressions, symbols, mythical creatures against a background of tumultuous urban flânerie, all conveyed in a language of dense musicality. (An example:

Quels hommes mûrs ! Des yeux hébétés à la façon de la nuit d’été, rouges et noirs, tricolores, d’acier piqué d’étoiles d’or ; des faciès déformés, plombés, blêmis, incendiés ; des enrouements folâtres ! La démarche cruelle des oripeaux ….

Chinois, Hottentots, bohémiens, niais, hyènes, Molochs, vieilles démences, démons sinistres, ils mêlent les tours populaires, maternels, avec les poses et les tendresses bestiales. Ils interpréteraient des pièces nouvelles et des chansons “bonnes filles”. Maîtres jongleurs, ils transforment le lieu et les personnes, et usent de la comédie magnétique. )

Some of the sections in the cycle (“Villes”, and “Parade”, for example) the editor Britten shortened, and others left out entirely.* According to Ian Bostridge (A Singer’s Notebook), “Les Illuminations is full of young man’s anger” and its writer and composer were at similar crossroads and of similar disposition at the time of respective creation of the cycle. If this sounds like a plaidoyer for a masculinist and homosocial reading of the work — and Bostridge reminds that the cycle eventually “became a part of [Peter] Pears’ repertoire” — none of it rang particularly important last night. Gauvin embodied — to say that she sung it would not be enough — the text as something that’s easy to understand and to live, and made a winning case for a flâneuse and female artist.

And without a music stand. And while wearing a bold, expressive dress which she never let speak out of  turn.

The strings-only orchestration is exciting all the way through. The first section, “Fanfares” is a commentary (send-up?) of this, usually brass-y, form of musical announcement. Here, the violas engage with the violins in a call-and-response until the tensing buzz of the secondary strings becomes dominant and the soprano cuts through: “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage!”, to be followed by a lyrical violin solo which silences everything down.

Other sections are varied and unpredictable in similar vein. “Villes” is busy and chaotic, “Phrase” uses very little, almost nothing in the way of musical material to create stunning lyricism, in “Antique” we observe the music going along, then against the vocal line like sonorous waves… The last exciting section is #8, “Parade”, but Britten won’t end on a loud “ta-da”, of course. “Départ” concludes the cycle, with very few and very long notes with no resolution, the voice leading the instruments. Assez vu… Assez eu…  Assez connu… Départ dans l’affection et le bruit neufs!

PS: At the intermission, Gauvin said she would be singing operatic roles in the near future at Glyndebourne, Bavarian Staatsoper and will become Vitellia for a Paris opera house. At the signing after the performance, I asked her about the roles, and for Glyndebourne it will be Armida in Handel’s Rinaldo and in Munich  Giunone in Cavalli’s La Calisto. Also NB: The recording of Giulio Cesare with Marie-Nicole Lemieux in the title role and KG as Cleopatra is now completed and the CD should be out with Naive soon.

*(Here’s a good edition of the complete Les Illuminations with the all-important critical commentary.)

4 thoughts on “Karina Gauvin sings Britten’s Les Illuminations with TSO

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful account of what sounds like an exceptional evening indeed. I’ve found Rimbaud to be a hypnotically fascinating author, but not one whose work is easy to get at the heart of. Must look for that recording, as well as that forthcoming Giulio Cesare.

    Also I need to concoct an academic excuse to get within striking distance of Munich.

  2. Have you seen Agnieszka Holland / Christopher Hampton’s Total Eclipse, about the Verlaine-Rimbaud liaison? A lot of mythologizing of Rimbaud… but a good film, in spite Leonardo DiCaprio.

    (Kind of you not to note that I didn’t say a word about Fauré and Brahms… Joy #1 of blogging: partiality ‘R US)

  3. This sounds like it was a wonderful concert. I’m a great admirer of Gauvin’s singing, and I’m excited to hear that she’s recorded Giulio Cesare with Lemieux – I’ll have to keep an eye out for that. Also, I think it’d be worth the trip to Paris to hear her as Vitellia . . .

  4. It’s interesting, she actually hasn’t done as much live opera as you’d expect. She was asked about that at this at that intermission chat, and she said it’s probably because she never joined any Young Artist or Ensemble programs that casting directors thought of her as more of a concert and recording soprano. Luckily, she will be doing much more opera from now on.

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