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Summer Opera 2006: Jessye Norman at the Châtelet

Jessye Norman, sopranoThe Théâtre du Châtelet has been having quite a summer opera season, beginning with the performance of the opera they commissioned from Patrick Burgan, Peter Pan, all to celebrate the final season of departing director Jean-Pierre Brossmann. Then, on June 10, 13, and 16, Pierre Boulez led an incredible performance, pairing Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé. The star of the night was legendary soprano Jessye Norman. Marie-Aude Roux wrote a review (Jessye Norman, des moments de magie pure, June 15) for Le Monde (my translation):

All those who will see and hear the great Jessye Norman at the Théâtre du Châtelet will surely keep the memory of it for the rest of their lives. A familiar face here, it was no surprise to see the American singer closing out the last season of the Châtelet's director, Jean-Pierre Brossmann. Because from the "Homage to Duke Ellington" in 2000 to the explosive recital of Haydn, Mahler, Duparc, and de Falla songs given almost with voice only in 2004, with the Robert Wilson Winterreise in 2001 and the Schoenberg/Poulenc Erwartung/La Voix humaine double-bill in 2002, Jessye Norman has remained faithful to the legendary artist she is. So, for these five remaining lyric concerts, she will be the High Priestess, for two operas in concert performance, Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, with Pierre Boulez, and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, directed by Marc Minkowski. Judith and Dido, two choice roles that will again make her singular and larger than life. [...]

The entrance of Jessye Norman is already a spectacle in and of itself. The singer wore a heavy, luxuriant gown, sparkling in an intense emerald green -- the gown of Judith, Barbe-Bleue's last wife. Magnificent, radiant in her presence and luminous in beauty. What followed was musically like pure magic. At 60 years old, the American has lost nothing of her aura, quite the contrary. Something hieratic has yielded to a truth that is true incarnation. From the first notes, Jessye Norman was Judith, the mythic and saving woman, but so human, so vehement, she whose love moves mountains, assaults castles, and opens the darkest doors to the light. One by one, Judith will open the doors -- to the torture room, the weapons hall, the treasury, the secret garden, the vast lands, the lakes of tears -- nothing escapes that terrible opening to the light, in a dramatic buildup that is also an ecstasy. Until the interior shadow of Judith herself, the doubt she has of Bluebeard's love, finally engulfs and destroys her.

If the voice has perhaps lost a little bit of its gold in the high range -- and even that is perhaps not true -- it remains one of the most sensually enveloping, voluptuous, and fine things you can imagine, like silk. But more than a vocal line that is always strong and lifted up on an endless breath support, the musical intelligence of the artist is staggering. The last word of conquered Judith, as she puts her dark clothes back on, a coat of stars and a crown of diamonds, before going to join Bluebeard's other wives, spoke of all the world's anguish. And it is a matter of genius to be able merely to go back to your chair, while giving the appearance of agony.
That is a very rare rave from an exceedingly tough critic. Hungarian baritone Peter Fried sang Bluebeard, also apparently quite well. Naturally, with this kind of high-profile concert, Le Figaro was there as well, with a review by Christian Merlin (Désir inassouvi, June 13) that brings us some much-needed objectivity (my translation):
And there you have it. There are concerts that you look forward to all year long. You save the date, you make it a holiday. The program, the performers, everything joins together to make it the musical event of the season. D-Day arrives, and it's a disappointment! The eternal problem of longing and waiting. Pierre Boulez in the too rare complete version of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé (with the choruses!) and Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, which should be irresistable, we say to ourselves: perhaps we said it too much! Boulez's Daphnis was impressive, to be sure: rhythmically acute, the rigor of the tempo changes, all showed a master at work. But it was an abstract construct, more segmented than fluid: the ballet did not tell a story, the sensuality was bridled, the Orchestre de Paris sounded in tune but not together, even acidic.

Was the intention, in baring the violence of this supposedly hedonistic music, to draw a parallel with the bitterness of Bartók, whose fascinating Duke Bluebeard's Castle made up the second part of the concert? Perhaps so, since in this case the orchestra sounded almost too beautiful in the Bartók, with a richness like incredibly dense pasta, profound, opulent. The Orchestre de Paris was glorious, the brass were deployed at the fifth door with a stupefying fullness. But after the sensuality of Daphnis, it was then the morbidity of Bluebeard that was lacking. It was especially the opera that was missing! Between the fact that the great Jessye Norman, her eyes glued to her score, no longer had the power to compete with the orchestral sound, and the expressive neutrality of the young bass Peter Fried, who was still rather far from erasing the memory of the irreplaceable Laszlo Polgar, what we witnessed was more a symphonic poem with voices than a moment of lyric theater. A concert at a high level, yes. The life-altering experience we anticipated, no.
There are two lessons of criticism at play in the comparison of these two reviews. First, listening is a personal experience. Here are two critics -- I have read many of their reviews and have great respect for both of them -- who heard things very differently. Critics need good ears and knowledge of the music being played, as well as strong opinions and the ability to write about them well. Second, critics who listen to a lot of concerts in a major city -- like Paris or, to a lesser degree, Washington -- are often asked to distinguish among good, very good, excellent, and the truly bouleversant, which I translated above as life-altering. Critics sometimes are perceived as being too negative, but I tend to mistrust a reviewer who is consistently too positive. I trust Mme. Roux's rave quoted above, because such a review from her is appropriately rare.


Anonymous said...

I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. The average quality of musical offerings in a city like Paris is such that nothing is ever completely bad. Most reviewers (like Mrs. Roux’s colleague at Le Monde, Mr. Machart) tend to describe concerts that are “merely good” as terrible. Mrs. Roux is a much more balanced critic, who never needlessly uses extreme descriptions.

As for this concert, well... I was there and was was completely mesmerised, both by Daphnis and by Bluebeard’s Castle. Jessye Norman more than made up for what she may have lost vocally in intensity and sheer class. A few days later, she was a breathtaking Dido in Purcell’s Dido & Æneas.

Charles T. Downey said...

Laurent, thanks for the comment, the links, and for reading! I will check out your blog.

Anonymous said...

does anyone know where to find out jessye norman concert dates either in the uk or france? i had tickets a couple of years ago for london but unfortunately Ms norman had a throat infection and cancelled and ive been no avail for a venue i can see her...any help much appeciated