domingo, abril 26, 2009

Mozarteum starts season with controversial Berlioz

The Mozarteum Argentino has long been our main private concert institution, keeping to a consistent high quality level, few exceptions apart. I´m afraid that the start of the 2009 season falls into the latter category and am truly sorry it was so, for the idea was very promising: the first performance of "Lélio" by Hector Berlioz in Argentina, and preceded, as was the composer´s idea, by the "Fantastic Symphony". It could have been presented in straight concert fashion and that would have been alright; however, this was a multimedia performance from France, and there lies the problem.

But before I get into the reasons for the disappointment, a paragraph or two on the works themselves. Almost no one disagrees with the statement that the "Fantastic" is one of the very greatest symphonies ever written; this true manifest of Romanticism is also the undoubted masterpiece of Berlioz, that strange and isolated genius of French musical history. Created in 1830, this "Episode in the life of an artist" is programmatic and was inspired by the famous book of Thomas de Quincey, "Confessions of an English Opium -eater". In the words of Berlioz (reproduced in the hand programme): "A young musician, of great sensibility and ardent imagination, poisons himself with opium in a moment of despair caused by a frustrated love" (Berlioz smitten with English Shakespearian actress Harriet Smithson, who would eventually become his wife). "The dose of the narcotic engulfs him in deep sleep and evokes strange visions. His experiences are transmuted into musical images and his loved one becomes a fixed idea that he hears everywhere". Thus the listener goes through five tableaux: "Dreamings, passions", "A ball", "Scene in the fields", "March to the gallows" and "Dream of a witches´ Sabbath", where the "fixed idea" becomes a burlesque dance.

Rich material indeed for the listener´s imagination. But I very much doubt that even 1 % of the audience in this presentation found any connexion between what we saw and heard; it was indeed boringly and snobbishly irrelevant. Credited –if such is the proper word- to Jean-Philippe Clairac and Olivier Deloeuil, it was sad and distracting to see. On stage, in front of the orchestra, the protagonist deambulates in a state of confusion; the first dancer (so-billed, I would call them models) writhes erotically in a furious red garment; so do the second, third, fourth and fifth, although one of them is in her undies; all try to excite the almost inanimate opium-eater, and briefly (and tastelessly) unveil their breasts. Meanwhile, during the whole fifty minutes, women are endlessly enduring the process of makeup in the three screens over the orchestra…

What a pity, for the musical interpretation was worth hearing but didn´t stand much of a chance. In fact it was an important premiere of sorts: the first time that the composer´s orchestration was being heard here in its original version, with such instruments as the ophicleide (later replaced by the tuba), and with such fine matters of execution as were used at the time of its premiere. The debut in BA of the Orchestre des Champs Élysées (Paris) founded in 1991 by Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe (who came along on this tour) was very adequate. This artist was here about two decades ago as a distinguished interpreter of the Baroque with the Collegium Vocale Ghent. A thorough musician, his "Fantastic" was perhaps too contained, but it was beautifully played, especially in the subtler moments, and the artists surely know exactly what they are doing. There was no acoustic chamber (due to the lighting needs of the production) and the sound projection was thus inhibited.

"Lélio, or the return to life", was concocted between 1831 and 1832 and purports to show the protagonist of the "Fantastic" recovered from his bout with opium and decided to reasume his creative work. It is in fact a hodgepodge of odds and ends from the composer´s workshop with no unity whatsoever, certainly minor after the towering Symphony. But it is still worth knowing and quite pleasant. Of the six pieces for various ensembles I think the Fantasy on Shakespeare´s "The Tempest" is the best, with its evocation of Miranda, Ariel and Caliban. There are two tenor songs, both very sweet, one with piano ("The Fisher",on Goethe) and one with harp (appropriately, "The Aeolian harp"), and they were beautifully expressed by Robert Getchell (debut), mellifluous and accurate. A stirring "Song of the Bandits" showed to best advantage the powerful voice and presence of baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot (debut). A local choir, our Grupo de Canto Coral led by Néstor Andrenacci, did a nice job in their three appearances, including a "Chorus of Shadows". The Orchestra accompanied very well, with sensitive moments of phrasing.

Blissfully there were little dramatic shenanigans, except for the text of the protagonist written by Berlioz in wildly Romantic terms, and said with approximate French by a too emphatic Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, debut of an Argentine living in France (listen to Jean-Louis Barrault in the Boulez recording). Otherwise, only a brief appearance of the "fixed idea" and anodine images in the projections, apart from a seconds-long appearance of a full frontal nude woman (certainly a first for the Mozarteum!). Lesson to be learned: don´t import European shows unless you´ve seen them before and approved (this was premiered at Poitiers only a few weeks ago).

For Buenos Aires Herald

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