08 February 2012

the fire next time

Last Saturday night I went to Herbst Theater for the Alexander String Quartet’s thirtieth anniversary concert, presented by San Francisco Performances. Joyce DiDonato and Jake Heggie were the special guests.

The concert opened with Hahn’s Venezia, sung by DiDonato to Heggie’s piano accompaniment. At this point it’s probably superfluous for me to mention how marvelous this mezzo is, but it’s sort of unavoidable. Since Horne and Von Stade have retired she seems to have taken their place (well, maybe along with Stephanie Blythe) as the fun-loving, down-to-earth diva you think is your friend (it’s a mezzo thing), which is why I’m always slightly surprised and impressed that she can turn on a dime and radiate tragic grandeur (or any number of other emotions). After her last recital here (also presented by SF Performances) I kept visualizing the evening as if I had been caught in a downpour of molten gold. The Venezia set made me think of a silver moonlight sound, falling on the purple waves. Heggie was a generous and attentive accompanist. It was interesting to hear her perform this set so soon after Christopher Maltman did (in a concert I haven't posted about yet). For Che peca! (What a shame!), the fifth of the six songs, a very middle-aged love song in which the singer reminisces about the youthful agony his wife caused him, she took an interestingly angry approach, as if the singer were almost berating his still-loved Nina for the loss of their youthful passion. I thought it was an intriguing interpretation, though I was a bit more convinced by Maltman’s tone of wistful affectionate regret.

The first half of the concert ended with the Alexander String Quartet giving a splendid rendition of the Debussy String Quartet in G minor. These stylish and evocative turn-of-century French pieces harmonized nicely with the second half of the concert, which was Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, a world premiere piece by Heggie for string quartet and mezzo, which of course was the concert’s big event.

Herbst Theater was packed, with a larger than usual number of the sort of people who just stand planted in the middle of the narrow aisles when people are trying to pass them. It was that kind of crowd. But on the whole the audience was quite well-behaved, despite the occasional hacking cough, and the really epic amount of page-rustling during both the Hahn and the Heggie. Since Gene Scheer’s lyrics for Into the Fire are in English and an American was singing them to an English-speaking audience, I put my program away, though I can’t pretend this was purely out of aesthetic virtue, since I badly need new glasses and simply couldn’t read the texts anyway. But there were only a few brief moments when I couldn’t quite make out the words and had to check them later.

The piece is in seven parts: there are five songs for Claudel inspired by her sculptures (according to Heggie’s program note, these songs take place the day she is to be taken to the asylum in 1913), then there is an instrumental movement, also based on one of Claudel’s sculptures, and then an epilogue set in the asylum in 1929, when some old friends, a married couple, visit her on their way to Italy. Claudel remained in the asylum until she died in 1943.

The music is involved, moving, and beautiful, with many effective touches and agitated undercurrents dramatizing Claudel's mental state. The first song, Rodin, begins “Last night, I went to sleep completely naked. I pretended you were holding me” – a song of striking sensuality and loneliness, both qualities expertly projected by DiDonato. The second song, La Valse (a copy of which sculpture Debussy owned), speaks of the regrets of love, with a frenzied undertone to the waltz rhythm, one of several parts where you felt the woman coming apart. The third song, Shakuntala, based on the Indian legend, led to some not unexpected and not unpleasant Orientalism in the music, which provided a nice jolt of exotica to the sound (perhaps a little nod to the music of the time and its taste for the "exotic"). DiDonato ululated splendidly. The fourth song, La Petite Chatelaine, is a sadly lullaby-like farewell to the child she aborted. Song five, The Gossips, illustrates Claudel’s growing paranoia. Then comes the instrumental, L’Age Mur (Destiny), followed by the final number, in which Claudel reminisces about the past, with the occasional hint (“here they are trying to poison me”) that she remains mentally disturbed.

This is moving stuff, and it was movingly handled. I haven’t read any reactions yet, but Saturday night's audience gave it an enthusiastic ovation. DiDonato was crying by the end and turned aside to wipe away her tears. Heggie and Scheer joined DiDonato and the Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz on violin, Paul Yarbrough on viola, and Sandy Wilson on cello) on stage. Heggie and DiDonato vied with each other to see who could defer to the other one the most. She finally succeeded in pushing him forward for the applause, but he is a generous colleague and immediately turned around and performed the “I am not worthy” bow to her.

Heggie mentioned in his program note that ever since 1989, when he saw the film biography of Camille Claudel starring Isabelle Adjani, he has considering an opera based on the sculptor’s life, and he dropped several hints in his program note that he’s still considering it. It’s a striking new song cycle, and there’s much to absorb in the music, and I thought it succeeded beautifully. But would I want to see this material turned into an opera? Not really. I mean, I’d go, since I’m drawn to new operas like a moth to the burning flame, but I’d be skeptical walking in, especially if they follow the movie’s approach to Claudel’s life.

I also have seen that Adjani film, and though I liked it quite a lot, it struck me as a cruder, simpler version of Adjani’s first great triumph, Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., (which I should probably mention is one of my all-time favorite movies). Both movies are based on the true life story of a woman with a complex, destructive relationship with a major French nineteenth-century artist (for one, her lover Auguste Rodin; for the other, her father, Victor Hugo), a relationship that ends with her in an insane asylum. But I felt the Truffaut film took a more complex and nuanced view: like Northanger Abbey, it is both an example of delirious delusional romanticism and an ironic view of delirious delusional romanticism.

The film bio of Camille Claudel, on the other hand, is one of those by now (and, actually, even then – the movie is almost 25 years old) semi-ritualistic tales of an alleged genius woman misused and destroyed by all those awful men, and I just don’t buy it. For one thing, I am deeply suspicious of the cult of Woman as Eternal Victim – look, it’s a short slip down the slope from “I am always a victim” to “You are indeed a helpless victim so let me put you safely away and I’ll tell you what to do for your own good.” Has everyone forgotten that major nineteenth-century French woman and artist (and major non-victim), George Sand? There were women artists even then who weren’t too fragile for their world.

The program features a photograph of the appropriate sculpture next to its song, and based on those it’s clear that Claudel was a sculptor of talent, but it’s also just as clear that she is “school of Rodin,” which makes it a bit ironic that in her growing paranoia she feared he was stealing her ideas, since that would pretty much just be taking back his own. (In a further irony, the difference between their works is that hers are more stereotypically “feminine” – smaller, more intimate, more domestic, perhaps a bit more fluid.)

There’s no real reason to think a diagnosis of mental illness was imposed on her to get her out of the way. And if we’re going to applaud her for striking out boldly into an unconventional path, how can we then condemn Rodin for not turning into a dutiful and conventional husband? He also had his own path to follow, and I imagine she wasn’t exactly a Sunday picnic to live with. Yes, women in nineteenth-century France who wanted to be artists had a lot to struggle against, but then nineteenth-century French bourgeoisie weren’t exactly thrilled when their sons became artists either (Claudel appears to have had a much easier time becoming a sculptor than Berlioz did becoming a musician).

I think what we really have in Claudel’s story is that figure who haunts the fearful corners of all artists’ imaginations: the talented artist who can’t quite carry it off. An artist’s life is incredibly difficult, and actual achievement should be appreciated, which is why I get irritated when we’re expected to cluck disapprovingly over a major artist like Rodin on the sentimental behalf of someone who is mostly remembered for her connection to him. (She may have had a tougher time because she was a woman, but she's also remembered because she was a woman: no one is making glam films pretending that Branwell Bronte was the real genius of that clan.)

Interestingly, for all the emphasis in Heggie’s program note about Claudel’s genius, there is almost nothing in the cycle about her life as an artist, except for a few lines in the first song (Rodin): “In the clay / I search with my fingers / to uncover something true” – not Scheer’s finest moment, in my opinion. The story told here is that of a troubled woman who longs for a man’s love and who longs for a child and who finally finds some sort of regretful peace in isolation from the world, and that's certainly a story worth telling, but it would have the same moving emotional effect if she had never gone near an artist's atelier.

It's a tribute to what Heggie, Scheer, DiDonato, and the quartet accomplished that I was so impressed despite my reservations about the subject matter. But I’m still skeptical of the direction a future expansion would take.

The exquisite encore was the glowing silvery dawn of Richard Strauss’s Morgen, sung by DiDonato and accompanied by the quartet as well as Heggie on piano.


Sibyl said...

Tut, tut, Sirrah! Casting aspersions on the suppressed genius that was Branwell Bronte? You go too far!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

heh heh -- well, I'm glad someone is willing to speak up for poor oppressed Branwell! Maybe Brad Pitt can fit a film bio into his schedule? . . .