And so the Art of Song Academy concerts come to an end. Today I managed to get to the final one, the mostly German program with a Chausson piano quintet thrown in for a change of scenery.
Renee Fajardo with Janhee Park on piano sang Schumann’s Der Soldat, Clara Schumann’s Die Lorelei and Schoenberg’s Galathea, the last song standing out as the most intriguing and accomplished of the three. Meave Palmer with Leona Cheung sang Wolf’s Kennst du das Land? and what felt like a scene by Strauss, Säusle, liebe Myrthe – Rustle, dear Myrtle, with lots of onomatopoeic effects of cooing, rustling and crickets. Again, the dramatic commitment was unreserved with Palmer, for which kudos; there is perhaps an over-reliance on feminine fragility in her choice of songs and expression. I’d love to see this singer stretch her talent into other moods in art song rep. I am sure the voice will sound differently then too, not as pure and child-like as it does now.
Danielle Vaillancourt (+ Frances Armstrong, piano) did a Wolf song (finely) before an Alma Mahler three-song set with Die stille Stadt, Laue Sommernacht and Bei dir ist es Traut. There is great beauty of tone in this dark mezzo voice, but also perhaps a certain uniformity of colour where a wider palette would be welcome. Tenor Asitha Tennekoon sang his beloved Der Doppelgänger, a Wolf and a couple of other talky Schuberts, and his precision and gusto with the text were out of ordinary. He did not interpret as much as inhabit the songs–just like Palmer did earlier in the concert.
All of the singers obviously worked hard on the German text and engaged intensely with it. If I had to pick at something, it’s that frequently there was a certain naturalness with it lacking across the board–because the preparedness and hard work was still visible. I would however gladly see each of these singers again.
Chausson’s Chanson perpetuelle was also on the program, with mezzo Lyndsay Promane, Steve Sang Koh and Julia Mirzoev (violins), Julia Swain (viola), John Belk (cello) and Alexey Pudinov (piano), but for some reason it did not engage me at all. The Chamber Music fellows with mentor Yehonatan Berick rounded the evening with Dohnanyi’s overlong Piano Quintet No. 2.
Now, song academy is over but the song is not: Steven Philcox and Krisztina Szabo are scheduled to perform a yet undisclosed program of songs by Canadian composers on July 24 at 5pm at Heliconian Hall. It’s a free (sponsored) series and I hope it gets a solid turnout, unusual start time notwithstanding. Also in this series, Alice Ping Yee Ho’s opera in concert, Your Daughter Fanny.
The first of the recitals have just started happening. Yesterday, Julius Drake, who’s been working with the singers the preceding week, held a Master Class with four of them — four mezzo-sopranos, as it happens. It was really interesting to follow a master class that assigns equal amount of importance to the piano as to the voice. There is repertoire which fundamentally *comes* from the piano, and if that side isn’t finessed out or painted boldly, there’s no amount of voice and textual interpretation that’ll save the song.
This was extremely clear in his work around Fauré‘s A Clymene (Danielle Vaillancourt with Jinhee Park at the piano), Grieg’s Ein Traum (Karen Schriesheim and Frances Armstrong, piano). In Britten’s song about a mother losing patience with the baby who won’t sleep from A Charm of Lullabies (Lyndsay Promane with Leona Cheung) Drake pointed out something else: that the singing wasn’t interacting with the piano — whereas the text should be coming as a response to it.
And always, always, insistence on the text. That the singer look at it very closely and carefully and understand all the nuances. Should an important nuance be lost (say, the foreboding in Berg’s Nacht), the song is lost. After Vaillancourt sang Jean Coulthard’s The White Rose, quite a bit of time was spent on saying the words passion and love and what it means to colour each differently.
And in Rossini’s song Il rimprovero, the operatic virtuosity needed to be dialled down to a salon song. Renee Fajardo (with Pierre-André Doucet on piano), whose voice is indeed the embarrassment of riches, had to switch from the operatic AAAAH into the sigh-like Aah. Similarly, Drake asked Doucet to tone down the cheeriness and make the fiorituras in the piano score more laden and melodic by changing the dynamic. It was quite interesting to observe.
I came out of the class quite a fan of Drake. He is soft-spoken–had to move closer to hear what he was saying to the pianists–and wastes no words. At every turn he shows sharpness, sound judgment and impeccable instincts, but without any flashiness or self-importance. I did know he was good communicator since I attended his concert with Gerald Finley earlier in the year (while GF on the other hand can’t really do chatty informal eloquence…), and yesterday he impressed further. He reminded me of this piece by one my favourite columnists Janice Turner that just came out on the weekend, on the quiet, non-self-promoting heroism; there is such a thing as the quiet, non-self-promoting brilliance in art.
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The first reGENERATION concert (why they insist on that awkward moniker, beats me) took place today at 1 p.m. There was no detailed program, and I neglected to write down everything, so I’m working from memory here, pardon. Karen Schriesheim and Frances Armstrong returned with Ein Traum, which sounded more polished and energetic than the day before, though the piano could go much more wild — I felt Armstrong was still too polite with it. Schriesheim’s voice is already beautiful and voluminous – a high, bright, soprano-y mezzo that, as the song demands, bursts out by the end. Where there’s perhaps a bit more work to do is in the interpretation department; cockiness is all right–who among us didn’t know everything in our twenties?–but may put the blinkers on a singer.
Florence Bourget and Leona Cheung opened with Debussy’s Songs of Bilitis and it was I think the most accomplished set of the four. It was an artistically mature, well thought-out presentation of this sensuous cycle that’s available in some top notch recordings. Bourget is one of the contralto-y timbre’d mezzos in this year’s Academy. The voice is nimble and elastic, its opulence doesn’t hinder it. Extra points for the elegantissimo yet neutral black jump suit, an atypical dress choice. (Tip: elaborate dresses and hair may distract the listener from the job at hand, which is imaging a world based on the words and the music.)
Soprano Meave Palmer (piano: Jinhee Park) sang Strauss’ Ophelia songs. Although the voice is still very young and in the bud, she has a great dramatic gift already and a keen interest in contemporary music, which is always exciting to see. Toronto tenor Joey Jang is also young and possibly found himself undermined by a bad case of nerves. His singing was tentative, but there’s a sumptuous tenor tone in there waiting to come into development.
The level of singing overall is really quite something. Each of the musicians at the TSMF AofS Academy is on a donor sponsorship–a scholarship, really. You can catch them for another round of recitals next Saturday. I’ll be there again, at least for one, possibly both. Julius Drake and Christoph Pregardien meanwhile (on Tuesday, to be precise) will do a recital before the German tenor takes over the class of 2018.
Gerald Finley has a baritone which casts a bass shadow. A voice dark and ripe and opulent that doesn’t lighten gladly, but the ear won’t mind two hours of it because Gerald Finley the dramatic interpreter and wizard of inflection comes with it.
Finley and one of the most in-demand accompanists today, Julius Drake, presented a German and Russian program at Koerner Hall this past Sunday, April 22. The first part assembled poems by Goethe set to music by Beethoven and Schubert, two almost exact contemporaries (the older man died 1827, the young one the year after) whose songs however belong to two different eras. Beethoven is not known for his vocal music and next to Schubert’s songs his come across as plainer, simpler melodies, playful or curious rather than stirring. In Finley’s hands the songs grew to become little scenes, delivered smoothly in his precise enunciation.
Schubert’s Goethe was a different Goethe. The set was capped with arguably the best known Schubert song, the infanticidal Erl King, but began with the long Prometheus lied, D 674. The Prometheus of this poem is defiant, not yet punished by Zeus, proudly creating humans after his own image. At the time of its creation the song could have signified political rebellion against the powers of the state, or personal rebellion of young creative men against their fathers, but the text has lost much of its resonance for audiences of our time and is potentially overlong and self-important. Not here: again, Finley worked his magic with the text and the song became a meaningful cri de coeur.
An den Mond (To the Moon) stood out from the set by its languid pace and silvery lyrics, while An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Chronos) swept though in a gallop.
The secondhalf, all-Russian, was shared between Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Tchaikovsky’s four songs came out as positively moderate next to the Rachmaninoff set. Rachmaninoff gives the pianist a lot to do, and is no stranger to a sweeping cinematic statement. An orchestra might have been present in the downers-with-high-dramatic-peaks O nyet, molyu, ne ukhodi! (Oh No, I Pray, Don’t Leave), O, dolgo budu ya (In the Silence of the Night), and Na smert chizhika (On the Death of a Linnet) but it was indeed just these two men onstage. A lot of chiaroscuro is required there, which Finley created through sensitivity to the text rather than vocal timbre (which stayed consistently as dark as plush velvet). Julius Drake from the keyboard supplied Romantic excess where Rachmaninoff calls for it.
One number in the Rachmaninoff set was actually fun: Sudba (Fate) – a song in which the singer voices more than one persona, in the vein of Schubert’s Erlkönig – had Finley (and us with him) delighting in the onomatopoeic sound of fate knocking on various people’s doors. The final song in the official program was the astonishing and astonishingly exaggerated Vesennye vody (Spring Streams), which starts by cranking up to 10 and stays there for its remaining two minutes. But Finley and Drake made it sound almost natural.
The encore was reserved for songs in the English language – Barber, Copland, Healey Willan, and a Britten arrangement of The Crocodile, a folk song recounting how a man ended up eaten up by the gigantic reptile and spent ten years inside it, “very well contented.”
As was the audience on this night.
Gerald Finley and Julius Drake presented a recital program on April 22, at Koerner Hall, Toronto. They continue to tour this program to Washington DC, Georgia and NYC. Finley will have an extra stop in Montreal, with pianist Michael McMahon (Info).
Not a review – it’s video direction vs. stage direction with these things, and I only got the video – but a few thoughts.
This wasn’t a catastrophe, as many people led me to believe! It had some brilliant moments, some WTF moments, and some moments where it felt the director just couldn’t be bothered. Overall, though, the chutzpah tips the scales: it’s a wildly imaginative production–a bold and flawed (but which one is perfect) attempt to do something new with a popular classic that resists radical re-reading. It’s also one that goes deep into the score and connects it directly to dance (tons of dance) and movement of the actors, often at the expense of the textual layer of meaning.
Namely, in most of the scenes with more than one person, Kosky and his choreographer Otto Pichler find the rhythm, the clang, the pulsing brass, the percussion and make that the currency of communication, while text may or may not be in accord. If it’s not, then tant pis for the text. And it’s kind of all right – the scenes work all the same. For example, the scene in which Carmen dances for Jose, first time after he’s out of jail and comes looking for her, is unlike anything usually seen in Carmen productions. Ordinarily, we’d see a scene of seduction, more or less explicitly acted, but here Carmen (Anna Goryachova) barely moves while following the percussion beat with her hands on her hips. In a way, there’s not much happening other than Carmen enjoying the beat on her own. She is being watched while she’s busying herself with her own pleasure.
In the scene of arrival of Don Escamillo (Kostas Smoriginas), the man gets three male background dancers who amplify, mime or make fun of his statement. In the scene of cigarette girls and ogling soldiers, female chorus is on the left, male on the right, and the men are slowly creeping towards the women and get stuck in various positions on first contact, as the female chorus is not at all permeable. Near the end, as the various ranks of the corrida are introduced before the grand entrance by Escamillo, nothing really changes with the staged tableau other than choreography by the handful of dancers higher up on the stairs, and the jumping up and down of the crowd.
The one scene which was destroyed for me by this supremacy of choreography over text was the quintet of the three women with the smugglers at Lillas Pastia’s. It’s delivered as an absurd Rossinian act finale, with three dancers in between the line of singers, each person popping up and down in the game of whac-a-mole precisely to the rhythm in the music.
I did not mind that there’s not much of a set apart from that Busby Berkeley staircase. I did not miss the mountain and smugglers’ camp in Act 3, most of all, nor the pre-corrida parade.
Score-wise, this version is not the one with spoken dialogues, unfortunately, but some of the recits have been cut and replaced by female voice-over reading from Prosper Mérimée‘s novel. I really like how this connected the scenes, and sometimes revealed what a character was actually feeling, or some background information usually not available in the opera (for ex that Carmen had a mother in a distant city who depended on her for financial support).
Another interesting contribution to the meaning of Carmen: Goryachova dressed as a female toreador is present in all the early scenes, even before her scheduled grand entrance. The opera opens with her, thusly clad, seated on the staircase, while the voice-over is reading a description of what the ultimate fantasy woman looks like, “according to the Spaniards”. The voice takes its time going part by part of the female body, as the character starts slowly descending, with a knowing, almost “whatever, this is a game” smirk. She stays on for the early scenes as the fantasy that everybody there, men, women, need – and briefly disappears and reappears for the Habanera. She is dressed butch for the aria (don’t ask me to explain the minute inside the gorilla costume) and is also dressed butch in the scene of the fight with that other cigarette girl whose name escapes me. The other cigarette girl however wears an ultra femme gown, and is dragged and kicked by the much more aggressive Carmen. There’s a possible subtext here, but which one precisely, up to you (is she repudiating femininity? interesting that in later Acts she sartorially embraces it. Or is this just a measure-for-measure, if you clap, I clap back one-off violence?) Elsewhere in the opera, she is one of the girl gang and it’s possible that both Mercedes and Frasquita are or have been sexual liaisons too (for what’s a little sex among friends?).
The voiceover in the smuggling-in-the-mountain scene informs us that Don Jose has been treating her badly, there’s a hint that he’s been violent to her, and she won’t take it anymore. She won’t take any crap from men, type thing.
The big emo solo arias are largely left intact (Micaela’s in Act 3, the big Don Jose aria at Lillas Pastia) as they’re musically pretty much unassailable.
Micaela (Kristina Mkhitaryan) is, interestingly, something of a girlish, pre-sexual, flustered, innocent white-dress-wearing version of Carmen herself.
Goryachova’s voice is OK if a bit monocromatic at times, under-inflected and under-nuanced. There’s a certain range of a dark bass-y drone that feels like a default place of her voice where it likes settling itself, and though it’s full and beautiful, there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. She gave it a workout in the “Pres des ramparts de Seville” and it was wonderful; most of the opera though the voice stayed in its default setting.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of the final shrug. So Don Jose stabs Carmen, she falls and (for all intents and purposes) dies; he sings what’s left for him to sing, Arrest me, I killed her, etc, and disappears off stage. Carmen, only her body visible in the spotlight of the dark stage, then gets up, dead serious, and looks straight into audience. And the she shrugs and smirks. I was expecting something more poignant, more… sisterhood. WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT??
I’m sure I’ll remember several more things I wanted to add the moment I post this, but right now, that’s all I can think of. It’s a carefully thought-out production with some fascinating moments; Kosky deconstructs the work into unexpected pieces (beat-cum-body units) and reconstructs it back, with text re-wiring itself into a different kind of dramatic coherence.
And I’m now pretty sure Margaret Atwood phrased the famous line “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them” right after coming out of the final act of Carmen. Could be legit used as the subtitle of the work, en fait.
Because my credits here are sporadic, full list here.
I’m really liking the number of the TSO conducting debuts in the new concert season announced yesterday. Han-Na Chang, Trondheim Symfoniorkester’s Chief Conductor is coming to Toronto next season, and so is Hamilton Philharmonic’s Gemma New. Barbara Hannigan and Tania Miller return. Melanie Leonard, the Sudbury SO’s MD, debuts with an, alas, Fred Penner program, mais bon.
Among the notable non-returns this season, Keri-Lyn Wilson. I was hoping she was on the list of potential MDs, but maybe she is indeed but the scheduling just couldn’t be worked out this season.
Among notable returns, the TSO regulars Juanjo Mena, Andrey Boreyko, Thomas Dausgaard, Donald Runnicles. TSO regulars who are otherwise engaged this season: Stephane Deneve, Hannu Lintu and Gianandrea Noseda, and that is just fine. It’s good to mix it up.
Because the conductors we don’t usually see on the TSO roster who will be there next season: Louis Langree, the French-born, Cincinnati SO MD, Karl-Heinz Steffens, German-born MD director of the Oslo Opera, Aurora Orchestra’s Nicholas Collon and Kirill Karabits, Bournemouth SO’s and Staatskapelle Weimar’s MD. Interestingly, Aziz Shokhakimov, known to the readers of this blog the very young, underdog candidate from the documentary Dirigenten! that I recently reviewed, will also have his TSO debut.
Not a whole lot of new in the soloists department – a lot of names we see just about every year (Zukerman, Lisiecki, Goodyear, Josefowicz). Repertoire-wise, the interim era in an orchestra’s life is not usually time to experiment and try out new programming visions, so the war horses it’ll be. An extremely modest sprinkling of Debussy and Ravel, exactly one Stravinsky and one Berlioz, zero R Strauss and Scriabin, and not much past early 20th century. New Creations Festival is usually announced much closer to the date of the festival, and there is a chunk of empty dates in early March so I’m hoping it’ll return. New Creations Festival, it has been confirmed, is cancelled for good. BTW, the TSO website now has a nifty search engine for the 2018-19 season, worth spending some time with.
And what’s ahead for Peter Oundjian? His tenure as the MD of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra too ends this year, Thomas Søndergård taking over (also one of the regulars returning for a TSO gig next season). Oundjian’s agency website offers the following on the artist’s page: Oundjian was recently named Artistic Advisor for the Colorado Music Festival, and this season he returns to the Baltimore, Atlanta, and NHK Symphonies, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Maybe a few years of freelancing after two busy MD-ships, I am guessing.
This and next season’s Interim MD will be Andrew Davis. As Opera Ramblings put it in his recent post, he won’t be “hogging the podium”, which is an excellent thing for an interim MD to do.
Really eager for some TSO news soon, though.
(And let’s hope for no more program copy faux pas like the unfortunate Ligeti graf that went globally viral-ish on Twitter. I found myself having to explain to Twitter friends from Seattle and Paris that no, the TSO is not usually terrified of the twentieth century and new music and that no, we don’t usually print warnings in programs and that I’d attribute the graf to a distracted program editor rather than read too much into it etc etc. )
Kristian Bezuidenhout has added a great deal not only to the HIP circles but to the whole of this music field that we call classical. He is a fortepianist, an occupation probably even more niche than a harpsichordist, but as such has become a one-man movement for period piano. I can’t think of another equally busy fortepianist today; let’s hope the gate is now open for others and that he won’t remain an exception.
What he’s best known for is his recordings and performances of Mozart’s keyboard music, which indeed sounds much different on a fortepiano vs modern piano. It’s almost a transladaptation, Mozart on a fortepiano – though one returning to Mozart-era technology of sound-making. Chamber music in particular, including of the vocal kind, is an inventive field: Classical and early Romantic Lieder to fortepiano, anyone? Why, yes: KB and Mark Padmore recorded two discs of select Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schumann songs for harmonia mundi, and KB also did a disc for the Canadian label ATMA, a Schoene Muellerin with tenor Jan Kobow back in 2003. All worth sampling.
Bezuidenhout made his Tafelmusik debut in 2013, and returns this year for four performances of the program titled Mozart’s Piano (Nov 9, 10, 11 and 12, Trinity St-Paul). In the first half, he kind of conducted from the fortepiano without much playing it – just from time to time seeking a chord or a few bars as part of his conducting. This was a new thing for me, silent fortepiano conducting, but there’s a first for everything, I suppose. First two symphonies, by two of the junior Bachs, Johann Christian and CPE, were fine and pleasant, if a little same-y. Mozart’s S29 livened things up: it’s a varied, rich piece, with inner unfolding drama of (I’m only ever slightly exaggerating) Beethoven’s Pastoral. There was a lot there to keep you interested through its entire length.
Second part was of course why most of us came – and let me tell you, I’ve rarely seen TSP that full. To the rafters. Tafel-subscribers know their stuff and come out, -10C degrees or not. The audience was also tilting a bit older than usual, which was good too–no Toronto mandatory standing ovation here, ladies and gents, and no rushing to get to the parked car. Second part beginning, Bezuidenhout came back to the emptied stage and did a memorable Mozart Rondo in A Minor for solo piano K511. Too bad there was no possibility of an encore–while some European concert halls allow it, here it wasn’t really an option. I would have happily sat in my crammed seat surrounded by other people’s winter coats for two or more solo encores.
The final piece was a Mozart piano concerto with Tafelmusicians back on stage – the no. 12 in A Major. Solo fortepiano alternated with orchestral sections, and although the piece kind of paled in comparison with no. 29, there was some extraordinary concertare happening.
In short – Bezuidenhout is becoming one of those soloists whom it’s not wise to miss. If he passes through your fair town, don’t idle.
On February 25th you can watch the acclaimed ROH production of Woolf Works in Toronto, thanks to the good people of the Hot Docs Cinema and the ROH screening series. Choreographed by Wayne McGregor to the music by Max Richter, the piece adapts Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves into three consecutive but unified ballets.
Here’s one of the videos that the ROH made on how the work came to be. The dramaturge Uzma Hameed, Wayne McGregor, Max Richter and principal dancers explain:
The Hot Docs Cinema is not showing much opera over the last two months. The sole screening, taking place tomorrow, is of the first revival of David Bösch’s recent production of Il Trovatore set in present day. Casting is stellar and includes Anita Rachvelishvili, Gregory Kunde and Lianna Haroutounian.
I can’t say I loved this conclusion to the COC Ring cycle, Tim Albery’s Götterdämmerung, chiefly because if offers no food for thought. There’s very little for the eye too: Albery’s is an arte povera approach to the work that contains about two ideas and five props. Even lighting is use sparingly. Yes, the twilight of the gods, I get it, but this darkness with squint-inducing lights gets tired after three hours, not to mention five. The overarching set for all locations except the Gibichung quarters are the massive hydro towers and poles left and right and the wiring connecting them (hydro, the Rhine, electricity, geddit?). It’s a good idea that also gets tired by continuous reuse. There’s something of the deserted outskirts of a large city atmosphere in the set, but this never gets developed. The five props remain the five props.
One of these recurring objects is the marital bed which shows Brünnhilde’s implausible happiness in domesticity. After she’s taken away by Gunther, hours into the production, the bed reappears with the Rhinemaidens in Act III–who are also on the shady outskirts of a city among the hydro towers. There’s some inventive changing of costumes there and playing with blue lights which finally gives the brain something to play with. But this doesn’t last. The bed however is sure to reappear for the murder of Siegfried: he is back on it as Hagen and his men track the hero down and murder him. Siegfried recovers his memory of life with Brünnhilde *and* their marital bed.
The opening scene introducing the Norns was a lost opportunity, because it doesn’t pull you into the drama in any way. We’re in the same dark place with three random women pulling on yarn threads. Nothing uncanny or intriguing about any of it. They are just… chatting. Two of the three Norns in jarring voices at that (not Karen Cargill, about whom later). I’ve always found Ileana Montalbetti’s voice an acquired taste, and the colours employed in the opening scene here take some getting used to. Montalbetti was vocally and dramatically a fine Gutrune later in the show, however, so: you lose some, you win some.
Highly problematic for the story is the fact that in this production the gods, the Gibichung and the Nibelung (Alberich appears in one scene) are all indistinguishable in status and power. They’re all just people, some in corporate boardrooms, others roaming around like Siegfried. Take pretty much everything else out of Götterdämmerung and replace it with gas stations and crocodiles, but the decline of the most powerful must be in the production in some shape. Not in this production, where Hagen’s army of men in suits with spears look like the elite reaffirming its power while Siegfried and Brünnhilde read as a hippie couple living humbly in their remote natural abode. And of course there’s not a hint of fire in the immolation scene, don’t be uncouth.
Among the voices, two stood out for me: Estonian bass Ain Anger as Hagen, (consistently larger, more precise, dramatically more committed) and mezzo Karen Cargill as Waltraute and Second Norn, whose ample gravi excited. Christine Goerke too, of course; she remains the punk Brünnhilde of our era, but something unlovely happens to her voice when the open vowel E is on a high note and needs to be sustained.
The COC orchestra under Johannes Debus, just like the Albery production, could have employed more passion and stronger contrasts but even so the music remains the one reliably exciting side of Götterdämmerungwhile the libretto struggles with endless episode recaps, magic potions and helmets that provide shape-shifting on demand, and an incongruously weak Brünnhilde physically tackled and overcome by the tiny Gunther. (Wagner really should have hired a librettist occasionally… imagine what would have happened had he found his own Da Ponte, his own Hofmannsthal? But that’s another lament altogether.)
The 5h20min Götterdämmerung continues till February 25.
There was a time when men loved lesbians and considered them essential for their own artistic output. No, stay with me, it’s is true: that time is the latter half of the nineteenth century, the place is France, and the men are the poets of emerging modernism.
Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs de mal’s working title was Les lesbiennes and the section that got him censored and fined includes poems “Lesbos” and “Delpine et Hippolyte” (“Femmes damnée”, somehow, got away, in spite its cries of solidarity: Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a pursuivies / Pauvres soeurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains). Paul Verlaine’s series of sonnets around amorous encounters between young women Les amies is more specific, more explicitly visual and sensual. His “Ariette oubliée” IV from the later Romances sans paroles is a poetic embrace of the care-free female same-sex coupledom that, some critics argue, masks poet’s own embrace of male homoeroticism. Soyons deux jeunes filles / Éprises de rien et de tout étonnées, says the poem to the reader of either sex.
Sappho was mythologized and loomed large for male poets of the era, and Théodore de Banville and Henri de Régnier were just two of the poets who wrote lesbian poems set in some version of ancient Greece. In the words of Gretchen Schultz who wrote an entire book about this era of literary cross-sex fascination (Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth Century France), male poets’ quest for selfhood took detours through lesbian personae.
Best known in the classical world of all the lesbophile song cycles of this era remains Pierre Louÿs’s 1894 Chansons de Bilitis, an elaborate pseudotranslation of an ‘ancient Greek’ Sappho-like figure Bilitis—in fact, entirely concocted by Louÿs–whose biography of the senses the song cycle follows, from heterosexual beginnings through lesbian blossoming to the reminiscing old age. Louÿs’ friend Claude Debussy set three of the poems to music in 1897 to create the lush piano and voice opus now known as Trois Chansons de Bilitis. Debussy then worked on another, longer cycle titled Musique de scène pour les Chansons de Bilitis with twelve of Louÿs’s poems, but the text there is recited within the tableaux vivants with musical interludes scored for a small orchestra of flutes, harps and celesta. Recorded only a modest number of times—there’s a Deutsche Grammophon recording with Catherine Deneuve as the recitant—this other version of Chansons is extremely rarely performed.
The three-song cycle to piano is another story: it is widely claimed by both mezzos and sopranos and has been recorded frequently. At the February 9th noon Ensemble Studio concert at the COC, it will be sung by the young mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo accompanied by Hyejin Kwon at the piano. Both piano and vocal writing are of great richness, both of heightened sensuality of the Anaïs Nin kind. The well-curated program that abounds in literary references will also include…
Full piece here [PDF]– or even better, pick up a free copy of the magazine.