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Summer Opera 2006: Jessye Norman as Dido

Jessye Norman, sopranoThe other half of the Jessye Norman diptych at the Théâtre du Châtelet (see my post on July 12) was a concert performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, an Ionarts favorite, with Les Musiciens du Louvre -- Grenoble, conducted by Marc Minkowski. We have a rematch of the two music critics whose reviews I compared yesterday. First, Marie-Aude Roux wrote a review (Les hauts et les bas de Jessye Norman [The highs and lows of Jessye Norman], June 30) for Le Monde (my translation):

"Remember me, remember me...": the last wail of abandoned Dido is exhaled in a whisper. The great Jessye Norman remained immobile, her back to us, in the luminous costume of the Queen of Carthage, while the chorus in lamentation and then the slow orchestral postlude made a funeral cortege for her. A powerful moment, a magical moment, that the American singer has made a habit in all her performances. The cruelty of time passing: the choice of a program that is vocally very exposed, so unforgettable in the Dido and Aeneas in 1984 at the Opéra-Comique, could not cover over the persistent problems (flat intonation, discoloration of timbre, and uncertain line).
With the previous program, Christian Merlin was the negative foil to Roux's rave, and this time (Etre et avoir été [To be and to have been], June 29) he was also a little harsher in Le Figaro (my translation):
There are concerts that you adore, those you hate, those that leave you indifferent, those in the course of which you pass from one of these states to the other. And then there are those that you don't know how to read. It's a nightmare for a critic, who is supposed to give a faithful review. Tuesday night, Jessye Norman was at the Châtelet for an exceptional program, intended to show off the facets of her talent as a storyteller and actress: Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, with a first encounter with Marc Minkowski at stake. And as if to show the extent of the stylistic palette of the Musiciens du Louvre, they preceded the Romantic instrumentation of Berlioz and the Baroque violins of Purcell with the classical product of Gluck, Berlioz's model, the same Gluck in whose Iphigénie they attained the sublime at the Palais Garnier [more on that soon -- Ed.]: a demanding, difficult, pertinent program.

With her nobility and luminosity, the diva had only to appear to bring light. Les Nuits d'été began and there was a vast separation: the ear tried in vain to reconcile the present moment with the memories of times past, and one had indeed to admit that the voice was no longer anything but the shadow of itself and that the abundance of the poetic intentions had become the most affected preciousness. And still, for a few inestimable seconds, here we were attaining the sublime! So what to take away from it, between the sadness of hearing a caricature and fullness experienced during several minutes of pure emotion?

The question was less of a concern in the Dido and Aeneas mired in the artifice of a concert version. A little too much grand style, more Handelian than Shakespearean, with its considerable orchestral component and its luxury voices (Felicity Palmer as a sorceress, Philippe Jaroussky singing two phrases): the negation of intimacy. As if the performance had been scaled to the scope of the diva. As if we were seeing Jessye Norman and not Queen Dido. But Jessye Norman is a queen herself.
This is one of those things that is painful to experience and worse to have to review. All musicians face an inevitable decline, and when you are listening to someone struggle who used to soar, it's tragic. Jessye Norman will always be a legend, but it may be time to start singing only for pleasure.


Princess Alpenrose said...

NB: It's really a shame that the Belinda of this production (!) is no longer blogging. She could have offered quite a rare and interesting "insider's view" of this performance...

Charles T. Downey said...

Ah, yes, Erin Wall, the blogger otherwise known as Canadienne -- thank you for pointing that out. However, it is precisely because of that "insider's view" problem that she stopped blogging, isn't it?

Princess Alpenrose said...

Do you know if anyone reviewed her performance alongside Ms. Norman at the Chatelet? (In English, preferably.)