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Heloise and Abelard, Twixt Triumph, Dissipation


The use of a church space for a sung re-enactment of an instructive text began simply several centuries ago. Liturgical plays, from the 10th century onwards, were small events. The earliest seasonal plays occurred in literal obscurity, when a cathedral’s secular canons or a conventual order’s monks or nuns rose to observe the night office of Matins, originally sung at midnight. Other such plays were seen just before day’s main Mass at 9 or 10 AM. Later, they appeared in public view, first inside, then outside the church proper. Extra-Scriptural figures — wayward monks and nuns, shepherds, jugglers, and spice-sellers — appeared, their secular stories mirroring or amplifying the day’s textual themes. Virtues and vices were played out, their consequences explored, the work’s kerygmatic purpose achieved if it led its audiences to think on the life of faith and its challenges more deeply.  All saints and sinners need apply.

So the appearance of a new sung, orchestrated work based on a tale like that of Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil at Harvard’s Memorial Church this past Sunday, January 29, had venerable precedent in the dramatic works of its agonists’ own time. Edward E. Jones conducted members of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Harvard University Choir in Heloise and Abelard, composed by John Austin with a libretto by Christine Froula. It had many strengths, but its greatest and most serious weakness could have been amended by attending to the older plays’ greater textural variety, not so much in the silliness of comic foils, but in making more room for nuance, using more judicious restraint in scope and scale, letting all parts serve the whole equally well. A hard-working ensemble and a writing team of no small repute saw a very mixed result, I would say, between triumph and dissipation of effort.

As Catholic a space as a Unitarian campus could have mustered in the early 1900s, the church’s shallow fore-choir apron made things more than a bit tight, and other choices might have allowed for more dimensionality in the presentation as well as the placement of the performance. Now that its lacy fenestrated rood screen is unfettered, the use of Appleton Chapel for the choir and orchestra could have made a necessary difference in balance, blend, and ventilation for the performers. Jones seemed to see no reason for considering the soloists at all, except to start and end with them. Shaping phrases with wonderful gestures, his absorption in his own chirognomy and his apparent willed ignorance of the singers’ need for clear airspace reduced the orchestra’s contribution, capable as it was, to a noisy narcissism that fought with, rather than offering a complementary voice to, the operatic score.

Covalent balance would in fact be the thing this score and its performance needed most throughout. A first opera — a first anything — reveals both its own and its genre’s strengths and weaknesses in both the begetting and the realization. Composer John Austin’s first operatic work at times soared and strode forward with aplomb. But too often the score fell victim to a stylistic choice that weighed it down: his syllabic setting of the text plodded on, unrelentingly pedestrian where it might have benefited from a more textured ventilation of line and rhythm. Even the most playful passages, where polyphonic voices in the choir lilted a folk-song-like stanza, were dragged down by the dirge-like ground against which they were set. This also had the unfortunate effect of lengthening the work: any one-and-a-half hours of it would be a reasonable offering, but its own ponderous self-importance began to get in the way. Occasional glimpses of beguiling tone poetry were overwhelmed by the quarter-note’s unrelieved dominance. Heloise is said to be bright and articulate, but no quicksilver melismatic passages bespeak this. Fulbert’s excellent, blocky lines are denatured by giving all the other male characters (and Heloise) lines written just like them. Perhaps a stodginess — of the characters’ inexorable oppositions, the ecclesiastical hierarchy’s grinding judgmentalism — is intended, but it is overdrawn.

A smaller orchestra and choir would allow for the kind of transparency that advocates of historically informed performance have shown us can work for other kinds of music as well. This lighter approach would have given the singers room, both dynamically and within the shifts and colors of their registers, to develop more nuanced characters in conversation with each other. As it was, they all had to fight the band.

The vexed philosophers, Abelard (tenor Matthew Anderson) and Heloise (soprano Tony Arnold) whose love of thought begets a love for each other — and a child, Astrolabe — are opposed, first by her uncle, Fulbert (bass-baritone Jonathan Mark Roberts) and then by the reformer Bernard (bass-baritone Paul Guttry). Roberts’s upper range was adequate for declaiming Fulbert’s steady love and reasoned pride in his niece in the first scenes. As events unfolded, his resonant profundo was more and more fully engaged, growling out his furious grief at Abelard’s betrayal and a clangorous opposition to their marriage.

On the other hand, Guttry and Anderson both sang the notes, but not the music. It is more difficult to portray character in an oratorio-style performance — and Acis and Galatea this was not — but these two barely seemed to be trying. Anderson’s Abelard put me in mind of a male soloist with the Moscow Ballet, many years ago, who danced his entire leading role in Swan Lake without looking at his partner more than once or twice. Guttry seemed content with a workmanlike rendering of a role that is ripe for more expressive characterization: Bernard, the smug, self-righteous spoiler whose vaunted zeal for reform depended on his hypocritical denouncement of others for their basic humanity — the Newt Gingrich of his time — hounded Abelard, some might say to his grave, unrelentingly. The character of Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorne Birds might have been written with him in mind: ambition was his sin, and it is not clear that he ever repented of it. None of this bravado, judgementalism, piety or gall was apparent in Guttry’s portrayal.

(As an indication of how wrong-headed Bernard could be, see Guy Lobrichon’s article on Bernard’s —and his emissary monks’ — mutilation of chants in liturgical manuscripts whose older melodic lines he mistook for more recent innovations, and whose witness to earlier musical practices he thus destroyed: Les cahiers de musique médiévale, vol. 1: Le siècle de St. Bernard, “Bernard de Clairvaux : la réforme et la modernité” Centre de musique médiévale de Paris [see here].)

I had fewer quibbles with Froula’s libretto. Its slight ending — perhaps over-edited to accommodate the score’s thick-noted weight and length elsewhere — does not clarify the significance of Abelard’s last, devastating trial (not that much is known of it: only a short list of the topics on which he was accused has survived). The penultimate Easter scene, joined to a better-sequenced last scene (and scored more lightly) might tie off some of the emotional and logical loose ends. And some small attention could at least be given to providing a more reasonable basis for Heloise’s line “…I shall implore my friend Bernard…” When and how did he become a friend? This seems improbable from his earlier conduct…what happened?

But overall, if one can accept the mechanical premise that Bernard the reformer and Suger the embroiderer (tenor Charles Blandy) kept affable company, which seems belied by Bernard’s railings against any but the negative aesthetic we have come to identify as Cistercian, the text’s reasonableness and attention to its historical sources cannot be faulted.

And it gives both Heloise and the composer those moments of realization and self-revelation that brought Arnold’s tireless work as a singer and actor to the fore. Also like Nina Ananiashvili — the partner-spurned Odette I saw at the Wang Center so long ago — Arnold carried an unflinching commitment to the strength of her role in her very bones. And her work in this case was much harder: most of Swan Lake’s choreographic rough edges have been knocked off for over a century now. Constrained by a too-narrow stage, an impassive protagonist and an unresponsive conductor, she somehow still found the freedom to move. She bent, turned, bowed her head, and let her face be disfigured; she wailed and whispered her love, her fear, and her intelligent awareness of the complex grasp in which life seemed to hold her. Some of the faults of the work — its length, its stodginess, its pudding-thick texture — paralleled the nature of the society in which Heloise was trapped, and within which she yet found growth and a voice.

Economical casting also afforded an Odette/Odile paring of the roles of Fulbert and Peter the Venerable — in some, but not all ways, the villain and the hero of the piece — which would have assuredly been more clearly brought out had Roberts had more rehearsal time with the score. As it was, taking over at very short notice for Sumner Thompson, who had fallen ill, Roberts started with slight insecurities but came so fully into his own as Fulbert that he matched Arnold’s Heloise for intensity by the end of the first act, giving her more to pit herself against than Anderson’s too-placid Abelard, and seemingly finding resources for expressivity and characterization before the audience’s very eyes. The lamentably truncated dénouement gave him no time to develop Peter the Venerable’s charity; an important foil within the story, the abbot of Cluny, battle-scarred from jousts with Bernard, gave Abelard safe haven and a place of peace in which to die when he could not reach Rome and the hope of a reversal of his excommunication at Sens.

The score, interpreted with more flexibility and given a more textured attention to rhythmic and dynamic variation, could yet become, like those older plays, both instructive and satisfying. Its real communicative potential, which Roberts and Arnold worked hard to realize, and which called forth discipline from the choir and the instrumentalists, did bring to the conclusion something of fire and soul. When Arnold as Heloise sang a final, tortured Credo in the face of all that had happened, and then bowed her head in grief, I recalled the physical wrench that Ananiashvili, with a single, final impulse of her arm, had conveyed in her death at the end of Swan Lake. Like the dancer, Arnold had taken a body of work into herself and brought it to birth; finally, literally, she projected Abelard’s death into life and made us care. Like Heloise, she risked her soul.

Donna La Rue researches, writes and presents on the medieval liturgical arts, focusing on the town of Sens. She has published critical reviews for the Boston Phoenix and has taught integrated arts and art history courses for local universities.

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