in: Reviews

January 25, 2010

Report from Paris: Les Arts Florissants’ The Fairy Queen

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Paris, Opéra Comique, 24 January 2010- Special report

Your far-flung Intelligencer correspondents are forever on the alert for interesting musical events with some Boston tie-in, no matter how seemingly remote. This delicious production of the Purcell score with (most) of the Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream included will recall to veteran Bostonians a not-entirely-dissimilar production by the American Repertory Theater and a skilled crew of our own musical baroqueniks, back in the early 1980’s.  A few years later, in 1989, the present writer also witnessed a Purcell-Shakespeare show at the Aix-en-Provence music festival, under the musical direction of William Christie. This “Fairy Queen,” put on by Les Arts Florissants, with Christie at the helm on most nights, is the third such production in personal memory, and the best and most fun. Furthermore, it’s coming to the States in a few weeks, via the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Trobador urges his readers to take a trip to New York to take it all in.

This kind of baroque opera-spectacle, to be entirely successful and satisfying, needs to be musical, intelligent, and sumptuous. In Boston, and in the States in general, we have musicality and intelligence galore, but we come up short on the sumptuous side. The money just isn’t there. (Concerning the chronic underfunding of the arts in Boston……well, don’t get Trobador started on this sensitive subject.) This coproduction among the Paris Opéra Comique, the Glyndebourne Festival, the Theátre de Caen, and BAM, has it all, as the generous state subsidies in Europe, France in particular, make possible the requisitely lavish scale such spectacle requires.

The Opéra Comique show presents, if memory serves correctly, the entire Purcell score and the major part of the Shakespeare play, cumulating all and all, with an intermission, a runtime of just under four hours. The time passes easily, and the capacity French crowd at the Salle Favart sat through a couple of hours of music-less, English language text with apparent pleasure (there were, so the story goes, supertitles, invisible from your correspondent’s less-than-ideal seat in a loge.)

To be honest, the Purcell score, however fabulous it may be, is incidental music to a play; no matter how fine the musical interpretation, a less-than-excellent theater experience will guarantee a measure of disappointment, as your veteran correspondent recalls was the case during the ART run all those years back. In this current production, the intrigue and the text are trimmed a little, but most of the famous bits are still there (an exception being Puck’s wonderful closing lines, and they were missed—but Purcell and his 1692 collaborators evidently wished otherwise). For continuity’s sake, there are also a few lines interpolated here and there, evidently from that later rewrite of Shakespeare by an anonymous hand. The British actors are mainly first-rate, and they can handle Shakespeare’s language convincingly—something that comes a little harder to many American actors, even good pros like those at the ART back then. Only the Oberon here, oddly rigid and monochromatic, was somewhat disappointing. Sally Dexter was an electric Titania, and Desmond Barrit, who played Bottom (and sang the Drunken Poet as well) drew the loudest applause of anyone, musician or actor, at the final curtain call.

The music was mostly just fine, with music director Jonathan Cohen’s brisk and expeditious tempi moving everything along well in the best traditions of good show business. A couple of his tempi struck this writer as almost too fast, but a couple of cast members whispered to me that they preferred the quick pacing to William Christie’s supposedly more leisurely measure. While Les Arts Flo retains many veteran players from the 70’s and 80’s in the pit, the cast onstage is young and even, at moments, a bit green. The countertenor solo parts were taken, haute-contre style, by high tenors, to uneven effect. On the other hand, bass Andrew Foster-Williams took on the variously challenging roles of Cordidon, Winter, Hymen, and Sleep with great aplomb, and was an audience favorite. Diminutive soprano Emmanuelle de Negri sang “The Plaint” as though her life depended on it and, aided by intelligent staging, made that number one of the rare moments in the show that spoke directly to the heart (one other was a danced evocation of sleep and its erotic fantasms, choreographed by Kim Brandstrup). The orchestra, of course, is one of the best baroque bands in the business, and if blend was sometimes hard to achieve in the overly dry acoustic of the Salle Favart, there was plenty of drive and flair in the playing.

The staging by Jonathan Kent, is, shall we say, sex-positive. And constantly inventive, drawing on a heterogeneous mix of stylistic approaches from “authentic” 17th-century decor and costuming to Gustave Doré (the black winged fairies) to Busby-Berkeley-style Art Deco and beyond. The choreography is supple and seductive. For much of the show the chorus and dancers, in sleek basic black outfits, resemble fashionable clients of a Paris disco (only with wings). Here’s a more relaxed approach to the re-creation of a classic work: neither fastidiously historical nor polemically counter-historical. As T.S. Eliot said in another context (this quote from memory): “There is no method. The only method is to be very intelligent.” The riotous pre-intermission finale is a brilliant success, as a stageful of white Easter Bunnies engages in a joyful, collective bonk,… guiltless and somehow innocent for all that, and prefiguring the dressed-all-in-white double marriage of the finale. I only wish Titania had figured more prominently at the very end. For, if the title is to be believed, the show is about her….

Trobador desires anonymity

17 Comments

  1. I’ll never ceased to be amazed that this excellent ensemble never performs in Boston/Cambridge. Considering that Christie went to Harvard and Yale, you’d think there would be some connection. At the same time, I don’t believe that Yale has ever asked him back. Both institutions must certainly be aware of him, so I can only suggest that there are some unspoken forces at play.

    And speaking of unspoken forces, is it really proper for a reviewing journal to have anonymous reviews? There’s a long history of pseudonyms in journalism, but how do we know that a BMInt writer isn’t writing a vanity piece?

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — January 26, 2010 at 10:22 am

  2. Paul- BMInt shares your abhorrence for fluff and self-promotion. The piece in question contains neither, but I will ask the writer why he wants his identity cloaked.

    Corno Di Bassetto

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 26, 2010 at 10:27 am

  3. The reason Trobador chooses to veil his identity, albeit thinly, is that he is a working musician in the same countries and cities favored by a number of his colleagues, and he thinks it perhaps inappropriate for one member of the fraternity to sign an opinion piece praising another — what Paul is suspicious of when he talks about vanity pieces, or what is pungently described by the Renaissance German proverb: “Zwei scheissen in einem Loch.”

    On the other side of the coin, he remembers being himself being the victim of a particularly nasty written put-down, penned by a rival (if you want to put it that way) in the same town for the same bookings. He wasn’t thrilled by that mean-spirited episode, either, and attributed the attack, rightly or wrongly, to professional jealousy.

    So it is indeed a confused, and confusing, piece of work, to have working stiffs at work, reviewing the work of other working stiffs. There are big pros and big cons to this approach. On the one hand, we musicians may just possibly know a lot more, and hear a lot better, than the “professional” press corps. On the other hand, there is this whole potential tangle of professional and personal relationships, friendships, enmities, present and former loves, rivalry for gigs, etc etc, all of these things providing both conscious and unconscious motives to tilt the scales of a review in one direction or another.

    Maybe this whole topic should be teased out of the context of this particular article, and be opened up for general discussion among the readers of this website.

    Meanwhile, until we are all less mixed up about the issue, I’ll continue to sign anonymously. The editors know who I am, and they read everything over before it goes online, and I assume they will call me out if I write something outrageously corrupt.

    Ars longa, vita brevis!

    T.

    Comment by Trobador — January 26, 2010 at 11:51 am

  4. Among the composers who also wrote musical criticism, sometimes pseudonymously, Schumann and Berlioz were the best known, but others that spring to mind are Wagner (who wrote on many other topics as well as music — politics, vegetarianism, the Jews [a nasty piece under the pseudonym of “K. Freigedank”]), Debussy (under the pseudonym of “Monsieur Croche,” that is, Mr. Quarter-note, but everybody knew who he was), Dukas, Virgil Thomson, Marc Blitzstein, Henry Cowell, César Cui of the Russian “Five”, even Stravinsky, who wrote generally on music and seldom specifically on works by others — though he did publish a splendid attack on critics who had irked him, Paul Henry Lang and Winthrop Sergeant, and a riposte to an attack by Vladimir Dukelsky (“Vernon Duke,” composer of /April in Paris/).

    BTW your “Corno di Bassetto” (Shaw) was actually discovered by Carleton Sprague Smith to have composed songs in his youth — though he denied it even when shown the manuscripts.

    Undoubtedly I’ll think of others. In general I would be opposed to anonymous reviews. I think every one of us ought to sign his/her work; there might be rare exceptions. (Apropos which, see in Fowler’s /Modern English Usage/, first or second edition, under “exception,” paragraph no. 2.)

    Comment by Mark Devoto — January 26, 2010 at 4:51 pm

  5. Pseudononymous music writing, as Marc Devoto points out, has a long and honorable history — so why be opposed?

    It’s the opposite tack that I question more. As I recall, Stravinsky signed, more than once, texts that were basically composed by others, and not really his. And I’m not even mentioning Sarah Palin, or am I? Perhaps allowing oneself to be ghostwritten is a bigger sin than actually writing something of one’s own, and then letting it fly, for whatever reason, under a pseudonym.

    But I’m a troubadour, not an ethicist :-)

    However. Let me flesh out, briefly, the question of anonymity for a working musician who reviews. Sunday, after the Purcell performance, I headed backstage to schmooze with several cast members of my acquaintance, and incidentally for a free hit of champagne. I also talked to a few other performers, about this and that. Lo and behold, on Monday, the agent of one of these new faces, and not the most obscure member of the cast either, emails the office in Boston to find out if the musical outfit with which I am associated in America might not have some work in mind for her client.

    Now I commented on this guy’s work in my review. But he probably doesn’t know that I reviewed him, and I am happier that way. The crosscurrents of a shared profession, intersecting careers, personal ambitions, aspects of power and influence, even ethnic affiliation (are you listening, repulsive Mr Freigedank?) are already thickly confused as it is. I’d rather have the review appear under another name, thank you — it seems purer somehow and dissociates the content of that paper from these immediate and murky pressures, freeing the critical reactions, hopefully, from potential conflicts of interest.

    It’s midnight in Paris. And so, good night, for now.

    T.

    Comment by Trobador — January 26, 2010 at 5:59 pm

  6. Accountability is also essential in journalism. BMInt would not publish an anonymous review of a local performance. Performers have a right to confront their accusers and readers need to know whether any conflicts of interest or partialities taint the reviewers they see on our pages.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 26, 2010 at 6:17 pm

  7. Lee’s comment above is the one I gave him this morning. We are in accord that this review from a “far-flung correspondent” of a concert far from our venue was an interesting diversion, and if it had been of a local concert, it would not be published if the author wished to remain anonymous.

    Heaven forfend, however, that we limit our reviewers to those who know none of the groups, personnel, sponsors, venues, or have no friends, in the classical music scene in Boston… or we’d be limited to sportscasters or weathermen.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — January 27, 2010 at 12:46 am

  8. Well, Lee, that position certainly makes sense. But in the interest of full disclosure, will you also list, for all to see, in a sidebar, the potential conflicts of interest? X and Y once competed for the same job at Brandeis, P and Q had (or are having) a torrid affair, B left C for D, M and N are mutually allied against what they perceive as the horrid unmusicality and bad ties of O…..the alphabet soup could go on til we run out of letters.

    I’m not saying working musicians should not be writing reviews….but I am not convinced, either, that we have really thought through all the potential pitfalls.

    T.

    Comment by Trobador — January 27, 2010 at 3:53 am

  9. I’m not sure where this string of comments is leading, except perhaps that Trobador believes that we need to fly in critics from Alaska.

    Yes, musicians have prejudices, partialities and grudges, but professional critics do as well.

    BMInt’s solution is to let a thousand voices contend. If a reviewer’s biases show, then he can be challenged by editors, readers or other critic’s. I would be very pleased to print several reviews for some important concerts.

    And we do hear from performers and composers who believe their treatment to be unjust. That often makes for interesting conversation.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 27, 2010 at 9:17 am

  10. Pretty good idea, Lee, about flying in critics from Alaska. Or from the Birobidjan Autonomous Region, maybe, just for extra insurance re impartiality.

    I have often, in the privacy of my own bathroom, railed against the provincialism and ingrown self-satisfaction of much music journalism in Boston. It would be GREAT to have a visiting committee of sorts give us another perspective on what goes on in our town…. “Was ist Wahrheit?,” as the Man said.

    Meanwhile I guess a thousand voices (or a few dozen, anyway) will be contending. Try to get at least 2 reviews for each event, Lee, now THAT could be genuine fun.

    T.

    Comment by Trobador — January 27, 2010 at 11:06 am

  11. I appreciate all the activity that my comment has generated. But can anyone explain why Bill Christie & Cie. don’t perform in Boston? If there ever were a built-in audience, it’s here.

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — January 27, 2010 at 6:41 pm

  12. Is that a question for BEMF or The Celebrity Series? Shall I ask officially?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 27, 2010 at 6:46 pm

  13. As Trobador understands it, the Christie/Les Arts Flo visits to the Brooklyn Academy of Music are heavily underwritten by French Government subsidies; even arts-wealthy New York would have trouble importing these lavish productions just on its own dime.

    The problem of welcoming large-scale visiting productions is even worse in chronically-underfunded Boston. In fact, the question of visiting firemen aside, some of our most gifted artists need to do their work in other venues, where funding for their efforts is easier to find than here. Think, for instance, of the difficulties the Peter Sellers-Craig Smith Mozart operas had just being seen and heard in their hometown, despite their acclaim pretty much everywhere else. And those shows, though demanding of resources, were not super-spectacles on the scale of the Christie-Lully “Atys” or the Christie-Purcell “Fairy Queen.”

    More recently, “Borrowed Light,” the dance-and-music collaboration between the Finnish Tero Saarinen company and the Boston Camerata, named “Best of the Decade” a couple of weeks ago by the Village Voice, has yet to be seen and heard in Boston, and this in the wake of forty-odd performances at other European, American, and Australasian venues….(full disclosure: Trobador has a personal involvement in that production)

    There needs to be a new determination in Boston to make our city tops in culture, as it once was, not only in its capacity to welcome first-rate spectacles from elsewhere, but it its ability to produce the very best things on its own. There is a question of will, and above all, of resources. In this respect, the current controversy over a dumbed-down classical music program on WGBH should be seen as part of a bigger problem in the town we love so well. The Athens of America needs to stop resting on its laurels.

    Comment by Trobador — January 28, 2010 at 1:30 pm

  14. Please ask officially, Lee! Growing up in Chicago, I heard LAF there three times. Boy, was I spoiled.

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — January 28, 2010 at 2:58 pm

  15. I direct your attention to the fact two reviews of the recent Pacifica String Quartet concert are now posted. Do the reviewers seem to have attended the same concert?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 29, 2010 at 5:52 pm

  16. Why can’t the Production tour the world and the Asia Pacific Region???

    Comment by Annabell Queenie — February 11, 2010 at 1:13 pm

  17. Tell Anthony Fogg of the Artistic Administrator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
    to make a few phone calls to the Symphony Australia or the MSO or BSO
    or Opera Australia and pull a few strings in his contacts to get this
    Production out to Australia

    Ya?

    He knows plenty!

    Comment by Annabell Queenie — February 11, 2010 at 1:15 pm

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