The other week at the Symphony I finally got to hear Robin Holloway’s Clarissa Sequence as intended by the composer, without the last-minute rewrites necessitated by the soprano soloist’s sudden illness in the first scheduled performances in 1998, and though it’s a beautiful piece and made me even more eager to hear the entire opera, it’s also sort of a strange piece.
It opens with a scena for Clarissa (sung by Erin Wall in a large and beautifully clear voice), who is at the hinge of her life, the despairing moment when the greed and anger of her family force her to flee their house with the dissolute yet strangely appealing Lovelace. For someone familiar with the novel (that would be me, in case you were wondering), every word here is freighted with significance. But as with certain wacky productions of Shakespeare (like Peter Greenaway’s eccentric film of the Tempest, retitled Prospero's Books; or Peter Sellars’s 45-minute Macbeth lit only by flashlights), though I enjoy them I have absolutely no idea how they’re coming across to anyone unfamiliar with the originals – do they seem like gibberish or like something that hangs together? So it’s possible the words sound to some like a standard and not all that interesting eighteenth-century lament (sort of like the words of the concert’s opening piece, Mozart’s Bella mia fiamma, words elevated above the hackneyed by Mozart’s music and the beautiful conviction of Wall’s voice).
The rest of the piece is instrumental, with several slightly twisted and menacing sections evocative of waltzes or hunting songs, which I assume are meant to evoke the playful and threatening undercurrents of the ultimately tragic Lovelace. Then there’s the fire section, which is where things get weird.
The only thing I was hoping Tilson Thomas would discuss during his meandering and uninteresting remarks before the piece is why it took him over a decade to reprogram it after the mishaps of the premiere; he did not satisfy my curiosity, but he did mention that the fire in the novel was the Great Fire of London, which is incorrect (in fact if my memory serves the composer’s synopsis in the program book is also incorrect in stating that the fire was deliberately set by Lovelace and his accomplices; I believe that they may have discussed the possibility but the fire itself was started accidentally, though ironically Clarissa believes it was deliberately set to force her from her rooms, which resolves her to make her escape from Lovelace). Anyway, the weird thing about the fire music, undiscussed by conductor or composer, is that it’s mostly lengthy quotations from and variations on the Magic Fire Music from Die Walkure.
I don’t object on any sort of principal to quotations or adaptations of this sort (I enjoyed Holloway’s Gilded Goldbergs), but here it’s just a major distraction (it’s also lengthy enough to seem a bit like a failure of imagination; surely there are other ways of portraying fire?). Though you could see interesting parallels between Brunnhilde and Clarissa (both women motivated by intelligence, idealism, and fine feeling; both trapped by fire due to the botched plans of males who both admire and resent them), puzzling out those parallels during the piece – which is what you’re going to do when you hear that very familiar music in this unfamiliar context – really pulls you out of the drama and the emotion of the moment. You just sit there thinking about the Ring and wondering what underlies the pastiche and how far to pursue the compare-and-contrast of the two stories.
I feel sort of protective of Clarissa. Here’s my little shout-out to Professor Margaret Anne Doody, whose classes in eighteenth-century literature my sophomore year at Berkeley included a sensitive and provocative introduction to Richardson. Given the realities of time and reading lists for sophomores, we read the much shorter Pamela, though Doody's asides about Clarissa led me to haunt Moe's Books until I found a copy of the unabridged four-volume Everyman edition, which I first read over winter break that year. (Her lectures also inspired me to spend years searching for a copy of Sir Charles Grandison, and her discussion of Fanny Burney's novels when we read Evelina inspired me to hunt down her other novels, which, despite what you'll usually read, are far more like Dickens than Austen. I should point out that "hunting down books" was something difficult to do in those sad days before a benevolent Providence blessed us with the Internet.) Though I was a steady reader I never really “identified” with the characters in what I read, and for years I thought there was something wrong with me that I didn’t. I was greatly relieved when I eventually discovered that Nabokov sneered at the thought of only reading because you “identified” with a character. Anyway, there really are only two characters I’ve deeply identified with: Clarissa Harlowe and Rigoletto. Well, and of course Milton’s God.
Holloway came out to take a bow after the piece, looking pleased and slightly awkward. Given its attractive music and the thrilling story, it’s disappointing that no company in the United States seems willing to stage a production. (I’m certainly not counting on its showing up across the street from Davies Hall at the War Memorial.) I’d love to see how the nuanced psychology of this long novel translates to the very different medium of the stage.
After the overly long (25 minute!) intermission, we heard a wonderful performance of Schumann’s Symphony 3, the Rhenish. The trombones in the fourth movement, paying tribute to the Cologne Cathedral, were particularly fine. These days the Symphony seems to be in particularly good shape with Schumann and his neurotic-Beethoven sound. A few weeks before, the Schumann 4 was an unexpected highlight of Christoph Eschenbach’s visit. I say “unexpected” not because I wasn’t looking forward to it, but because I thought the evening was going to be all about the other piece on the program, Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, a lush orchestral setting of various love poems by Rabindranath Tagore.
In the event, though I was glad to hear the Zemlinsky live, the piece did not quite carry all before it. Matthias Goerne had withdrawn from the performances a few days before, which let a bit of air out of the proceedings for those of us excited to hear him again. James Johnson was the stalwart substitute, and though he clearly knows the piece by heart (he sang without a score, unlike Christine Schaefer, the other soloist), his was the sort of stentorian voice that I don’t really respond to – he had the power needed, and it should be said that Zemlinsky doesn’t make things easy for his soloists, often having them sing against a loud and thickly textured orchestra – but for me his voice was lacking in nuance, color, expressivity. Schaefer has a lovely voice (and wittily wore a paisley-print dress in, I assume, homage to the Indian poet), but I found it a shade small for the big sounds of this lush late-Romantic music. Since the soloists sing for the duration of the piece, the whole thing didn’t quite come off for me, despite the pleasures of hearing such an exotic score, and despite the commitment of both the singers and the symphony.