CHAUSSON: Poème de l’amour et de la mer; Chanson perpétuelle; Cinq melodies.

CHAUSSON: Poème de l’amour et de la mer; Chanson perpétuelle; Cinq melodies. Jessye Norman, soprano; Monte Carlo Philharmonic String Quartet; Michel Dalberto, piano; Philhar­monic Orchestra of Monte Carlo conducted by Armin Jordan. ERATO NUM-75059 (digital), produced by Pierre Lavoix.

Ernest Chausson’s small but distinguished output is being explored increasingly by today’s celebrated performers. Not long ago, he was viewed as a fastidious bourgeois epigone of Franck, and one whose place in the repertoire was held only by the Poème for violin and or­chestra, a piece often dismissed as bloated salon sentimentality. However, as Harry Halbreich observes in his astute liner notes, Chausson is recognized today as one of the most important figures in French Romanticism, not only as a stylistic link between Franck and Debussy, one might add, but also as the possessor of an individual creative personality that reveals a profound inner conflict between an intensely emotional nature and a patrician sense of modesty. Indeed, the violin Poème itself is a masterpiece of elegiac dignity, eloquently presenting the aesthetic core of Chausson’s art (if somewhat trivialized by overexposure, placement in trite program contexts, and shallow performances).

One of the major compositions of Chausson to gain attention during the past several years is the Poème de l’amour et de la mer, a two-part vocal work lasting about half an hour. Com­pleted in 1892, the Poème describes the prototypical summer romance—its momentary taste of ecstasy, which passes and cannot be rekindled—from the familiar fin de siecle pose of retro­spective melancholia. It is a testament to Chausson’s acute artistry that this time-worn conceit is conveyed with such touching conviction. A strong melodic contour soars through the bil­lowing waves of chromaticism, providing the focus and stability often missing from lesser works of this kind.

In evaluating this new recording, which features soprano Jessye Norman with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Monte Carlo, one calls for comparison several available alternatives, all ex­tremely good (see Fanfare 11:2, pp. 43-44). One might summarize their qualities as follows: The performance by Victoria de los Angeles (Angel S-36897) is warm, limpid, and intimately projected, but perhaps insufficiently varied in tone color; the one by Montserrat Caballé (Peters PLE 021) is equally warm, but richer and more powerful, yet somewhat short on subtlety and nuance; Janet Baker’s (Angel S-37401) displays her unerring intelligence, sensitivity to nuance, and expression of textual meaning, but reveals the shortage of sheer sensuous power and rich­ness in her voice—a weakness that becomes particularly noticeable in a work like this, and in company like this. However, after listening to Jessye Norman’s recording, I must conclude that she simply takes all prizes. Displaying a gorgeous sound, magnificent artistry, a broad range of color and expression, as well as sensitivity to text, she offers the best performance of this work that I have ever heard. And, surprisingly enough, the orchestra, under Armin Jordan’s sensitive direction, provides a flexible, richly balanced accompaniment that rivals even that of the London Symphony on the Baker disc.

In addition to this splendid performance, the disc also contains the only recording currently available in the U.S. of Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, a seven-minute song accompanied by piano quintet. One of the composer’s last works, it again depicts a situation of torrid love abruptly terminated, but expressed now with an increased concentration of poignant in­tensity, placing it among the composer’s three or four greatest compositions, along with the Concert in D and the opera Le Roi Arthus (now available on MRF 179-S). Janet Baker’s erstwhile recording of Chanson perpétuelle (L’Oiseau-Lyre S-298) was awfully close to perfection, partly because its greater demands for verbal nuance and subtlety of expression in an intimate context were ideally suited to her gifts, so that I find it impossible to prefer any performance to that one. But Jessye Norman’s new rendition is gorgeous on its own terms (and Baker’s is no longer available in this country).

The additional inclusion of five melodies from Chausson’s Op. 2 group is nice, although these early songs are among his weakest; later melodies are more interesting. Sound quality of this Erato disc does full justice to the opulence of the music and the magnificence of the per­formances. 

HEGGIE Dead Man Walking

HEGGIE Dead Man Walking · Patrick Summers (cond); Susan Graham (Sister Helen Prejean); John Packard (Joseph De Rocher); Frederica von Stade (Mrs. Patrick De Rocher); Orchestra and Choruses of the San Francisco Opera · ERATO 86238-2 (2 CDs: 2:26; Live Perf: Oct., 2000)

This highly touted opera, whose auspicious San Francisco premiere and attendant publicity have led to the scheduling of numerous subsequent productions around the country, is representative of a fascinating phenomenon that has been making a significant impact on the world of opera for several years now. In fact, this phenomenon is a good deal more fascinating than the opera itself. Perhaps the first step was John Adams’s Nixon in China, whose remarkable popularity suggested the marketing value of embracing topical material as subject matter on which to build an opera. Then there is the highly successful—and justly so—application of super-titles, which render the libretto fully accessible to the audience. The significance of this innovation cannot be overestimated: Not only does it lessen the need for a grossly exaggerated style of acting that has alienated many potential audience-members, but it also elevates the relative importance of the libretto—typically relegated derisively to subordinate status—in the opera-impact equation. This has begun to make the libretto a creative artistic medium for serious writers, rather than merely a utilitarian device crafted by a journeyman functionary as a structure on which to drape a series of arias. Perhaps the third factor is the liberation of musical style from the modernist straitjacket of atonal declamation, making it acceptable to incorporate not only traditional tonal melody, but also non-traditional tonal melody (as in Adams’s operas), elements of rock/pop music, folk/ethnic music, etc. This is all to the good, right? Well, maybe—I’m not so sure. Look—I’d be the first person to complain about the endless rehashing of the s.o.s; and the first person to rejoice over the liberation of musical style, and to welcome an influx of newcomers into the operatic audience. But there is one big problem with this new phenomenon: An opera no longer needs really good music to make it big. If it has provocative or appealing subject matter, a well-written libretto, and music that is, well, inoffensive, let’s say, no one even seems to notice anything missing.

A case in point: The opera Dead Man Walking is based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean, which had already been adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie (in case you’re from another planet) starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The book depicts the quasi-true story of a brutal, unrepentant murderer on death row in a Louisiana penitentiary, and the nun who befriends him and attempts to lead him toward some degree of redemption by showing him the love she believes is due all children of God. The idea of an operatic adaptation came from the distinguished playwright Terrence McNally, who also happens to be an opera buff, and was eager to write the libretto. Composer Jake Heggie was born in Florida in 1961, and grew up in Ohio, studying at UCLA with Paul Des Marais and David Raksin. During the 1980s he toured as a duo-pianist with Johana Harris (Mrs. Roy). As a composer he has concentrated on vocal music, having written more than 150 songs, which have been championed by a number of today’s most celebrated opera stars, most notably Frederica von Stade. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, Dead Man Walking is his first effort in the genre. Its October, 2000 premiere was a great success, its power as music-drama inviting comparison with West Side Story.

So what do we have here? The story is certainly a powerful one, and its operatic depiction makes no concessions to fragile sensibilities. Concerned not to be a simplistic, sentimental tract against capital punishment, the excellent libretto portrays Joseph De Rocher—the murderer—in all his vicious brutality, while validating the quest of the bereaved parents of the victims to find some sense of closure, if not justice. Their feelings balance Sister Helen’s mission of compassion and the pleas of De Rocher’s mother for clemency. Sister Helen conveys her horror and revulsion at De Rocher’s crime, while refusing to hate him as a person. It is the validity of these feelings and positions in simultaneous conflict that lends the work its power. The musical language that Heggie has adopted is rooted in tonal neo-romanticism, with coloration drawn from a gospel-spiritual-blues vein. But the actual music through which he depicts the story rarely rises to the emotional heights demanded by that story. There are some exceptions: The orchestral Prelude and the Prologue that follows, which accompanies a silent enactment of the crime, are gripping and create high expectations. Sister Helen’s aria in Act I, Scene 2, as she drives toward the prison, is quite moving. The sextet in Act I, Scene 8, featuring the parents of the victims, Sister Helen, and de Rocher’s mother, is fairly impressive. The soliloquy in Act II, Scene 4, when Sister Helen, wonders, “Who will walk with me?” tugs at the heart. But this is very little, relative to the whole—a whole that is packed with opportunities for the most intense musical expression: De Rocher’s mother, pleading for clemency; Sister Helen’s attempts to reach De Rocher, to open his heart enough for him to admit his guilt; the last confrontation between De Rocher and his mother; the scene in which De Rocher finally confesses; his actual execution. These are moments that a real opera composer would relish, but here they are all missed opportunities. Those involved with the creation of Dead Man Walking speak of a hope that the work will be a vehicle through which the audience might undergo a spiritually transforming experience. Such an admirable intention requires a work of sufficient communicative power that the listener can lose himself enough to become fully enveloped emotionally, carried away as an ocean wave carries a swimmer. But Heggie’s bland, pedestrian music shuffles along, rarely if ever taking flight in this way. Comparable in its emotional power to West Side Story?Someone’s got to be kidding! Let’s make a more modest comparison: Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah—an opera set in the South among poor folk, which adopts a neo-romantic musical language tinged with gospel hymns, and a story with broader moral reverberations. Susannah can provide a transforming experience because Floyd’s music has real lyrical loft, and a sense of artistic sincerity. I am not suggesting that Heggie has perpetrated an act of intentional fraudulence; but I do have the vague sense that some people are exaggerating something for the purpose of exploiting a situation.

Lest I seem unduly harsh in this review, let me add that Mr. Heggie is a “hot property” right now, with many new projects on the way, and I don’t expect my little commentary to alter that in any way. In preparation for this review, a casual search for background information on the internet produced hundreds of references to this composer and his opera, most of it pure hype, fluff, and puffery—advertising, rather than information. There is something about the commingling of art and commerce here that smells bad. Nothing pleases me more than the legitimate success of a new musical work. But that is different from trying to make something out of nothing.