Friday, November 30, 2007

Of the sea, song, and sirens

In the old days, BSO programs aspired to some sort of intellectual coherence - most often, to pairings of the "compare and contrast" variety. These days, however, national origin seems to be enough to shape an evening around, as in this weekend's offering of "French music," featuring Berlioz, Duparc, Debussy, and a new commission from Henri Dutilleux, sung by reigning concert soprano Renée Fleming (at left).

The evening opened with an expertly gauged, if utterly conventional, reading of excerpts from the Berlioz "Roméo et Juliette;" though to be fair, James Levine coaxed some real feeling from the suite's "love scene," and the "Queen Mab scherzo" sometimes shivered with eerie, moonlit fantasy. Still, this seemed like an aperitif before the main course: Fleming.

The diva entered looking glorious in a sea-foam stole over a shimmering, fishtail sheath (someone must have told her La Mer was on the program), and she was generally in fine voice - although perhaps the warm opalescence of her pipes isn't precisely right for Dutilleux, whose precision might be better served by crystal than pearl. Fleming also seemed at times to be laying her own patented stamp on the music rather than responding to the Ligeti-esque textures around her. Still, there was reason for her to feel isolated; like many a mid-century composer - which is essentially what the nonagerian Dutilleux still is - the Frenchman hadn't so much supported her voice as built an environment for it to explore, and her soprano did retain a poignant vulnerability as it rose and fell through the exquisite, alienated soundscape the composer had constructed. Of the short vocal suite he supplied, perhaps the strongest was the opening piece, "L'Temps L'Horloge" (roughly "Time and the Clock"), which hauntingly evoked time itself rippling through the cogs and gears of its own measurement (with the woodwinds following suit), rather than slipping silently by us "like a thief in the night." Less compelling, at least on first hearing, was the burnt-offering setting of "Le Dernier Poeme," the famously minimal verse (by Robert Desnos) in which romantic despair meets the doom of the death camps. Dutilleux hit on an odd but intriguing instrumental choice for the piece: what sounded like a beaten-down accordion accompanied Fleming through her desolate admonition to the War's survivors; but perhaps the vocal line was slightly too spare to fully mine the pathos of the poem.

Fleming was more in her element in the ensuing group of songs by Duparc, achieving something like perfect synchronicity with Levine and the orchestra during the gorgeous "L'Invitation au Voyage," and the more muted rapture of "Extase." Even here, however, she sometimes sounded fragile, and her voice brushed at least once against the top of its register, perhaps leading to a rather constrained reading of "Phidylé," which might have brimmed with more passion.

This hardly mattered to her fans, however (several of whom departed the hall with her); they'd drunk at least intermittently from the golden spring of her voice, and left happy. Too bad they missed the best part of the program: Levine unexpectedly summoned up a brilliant performance of La Mer, which of course is putatively a portrait of the ocean over the course of a single day ("I particularly liked the bit at a quarter to eleven," Satie once quipped), but is actually - like so much of Debussy - a long meditation on submerged sensual pleasure. Sublimity of this type is a Levine specialty, of course, and he didn't stint on color, or spray - the performance's real pleasure, however, lay in its expertly contrived, but seemingly carefree, polyrhythms, which underpin whatever "structure" La Mer has. Here Levine caught precisely the play of tiny phrases over the deeper sway of the piece, and skillfully drew the orchestra from the rolling surge of dawn to the orgasmic thrash of a mid-day storm. There were perhaps no new soundings of Debussy's ocean here, but it was still exhilarating to hear the evening end with such a splendid splash.

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