in: Reviews

April 1, 2012

Fair Ophelia, Well Sung When from Memory


The eighth edition of The Shakespeare Concerts, this time devoted primarily to vocal music surrounding the character of Ophelia from Hamlet, was held in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall last night. The concerts are organized by Cambridge-based composer Joseph Summer and made possible by grants from the Mattina R. Proctor Foundation. They feature prominently, but by no means exclusively, music by Summer. One might think that he is obsessed by the Bard, but perhaps captivated by him and by the challenge of setting his texts in a modern tonal classical music idiom is more accurate. He does write other works as well, but is heavily ‘into’ operas. Some of the previous iterations of the nearly annual event (the first was in 2003, so this would be number 10 had there been no hiatuses) have been recorded and issued on CD: two are due out soon, and this one will be recorded and released subsequently.

Summer builds coherent and well-sequenced programs with works from the past and present, some fairly well known, others less so, and some rarely performed. Such was the case this evening. The program opened with a duet scene from his opera Hamlet, “You Took Me By The Wrist” (Act II, sc. 1 in the play), as with all such excerpts performed in concert format, followed by Johannes Brahms’s Five Ophelia-Lieder WoO posth.22, followed in turn by Richard Strauss’s Ophelia Lieder: Three Songs, after Shakespeare Op. 67 —  both setting the same text from Act IV, sc. 5, but in different German translations. These were followed by a duet setting by Summer of the final section of this text: “They Bore Him Barefaced On The Bier,” extracted from his Oxford Songs, a collection of about 40 settings of Shakespeare texts, so titled because he is a partisan of the theory that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the author of the Bard’s works. Hector Berlioz’s La Mort d’Ophélie, set to a freely translated French version by Ernest Legouvé of what has come to be known as the “Willow Song,” closed the first half.

The second opened with a rarely heard solo piano work: John Cage’s Ophelia, a work Summer described in his program notes as “ungilded Cage” because it is straightforward, without any “preparation” of the instrument, one which effectively evokes the madness and tragic suicide death with obsessively repeated simple melodic elements and chords, often at the extreme ends of the keyboard. Music Director and pianist John McGinn executed it superbly. This was followed by another scene from Summer’s Hamlet, “To My Sick Soul (Saint Valentine’s Day)” (Act IV, sc. 5 of the play), involving a trio. Camille Saint-Saëns’s La Mort d’Ophélie, setting the same Legouvé text, followed this, and was in turn followed by Robert Schumann’s “Herzeleid,” from his Sechs Gesänge, Op. 107/1, also a poem inspired by the Shakespeare text rather than a translation thereof. Summer’s setting of the “Willow Song,” “There Is A Willow Grows Aslant A Brook,” followed this, and the program concluded with his “Honour, Riches, Marriage-blessing,” a trio setting from The Tempest, Act IV, sc. 1, which McGinn conducted, composed for the occasion and premièred here in honor of the upcoming marriage of his daughter Eve and Andrew Keefe.

Participating musicians were sopranos Andrea Chenoweth, Kathryn Guthrie Demos, and Jessica Lennick, mezzo-soprano Kellie Van Horn, tenor Ethan Bremner, baritone Paul Soper, and pianist Miroslav Sekera, who shared the partnering duties with McGinn, playing in all the Summer works with McGinn handling all the others. Bremner and Lennick appeared only once each, as Laertes in the “…Bier” duet and Iris in the Tempest trio respectively. Guthrie Demos sang the role of Ophelia in all the Summer Hamlet excerpts; Paul Soper was Polonius in the opening duet and Claudius in “To My Sick Soul.” Van Horn sang Gertrude in this latter trio and Ceres in the Tempest scene, in which Chenoweth sang Juno.

All the voices blended and matched well, but with the exception of Guthrie Demos’s circling around the back of the stage in “To My sick Soul,” there was no acting and very little expression and body language; the singers seemed wedded to their scores on the music stands in front of them, making the performance a bit too static, thus undermining a bit their vocal competence. Summer’s music always follows and supports the textual line well in a contemporary idiom that uses the Romantic grand opera form. The solo art songs/mélodies/lieder were distributed mostly in alternation of their singers, with the individual voices generally suiting the texts and music well: Van Horn sang the Brahms, the Berlioz, and the “Willow song,” Chenoweth the Strauss, the Saint-Saëns, and the very short Schumann.

Van Horn was the only one to sing from memory, and it made, for this listener at least, a huge difference in the presentation and communication of the emotions of the texts and music. I have a soft spot for Berlioz, who was perhaps the best of the continental composers that rendered Shakespeare (For me, the Berlioz La Mort d’Ophélie was the glimmering gem of the evening), and admit that Saint-Saëns’s treatment of the Legouvé text is much more superficial, but I think that had Chenoweth memorized the piece, she could have given a more convincing rendering. She did a better job with the Strauss, whose music seems to fit its text better than Brahms’s, and I think it would have been better still had it been sung from memory; I’ve seen her perform in opera and know she’s capable of it (Perhaps she is simply more comfortable with German and Van Horn with French?). I found McGinn a better partner to the vocalists than Sekera, whose virtuosic skills weren’t reined in quite enough to allow the voices to prevail as I wanted them to, especially in the portions of the text where two vocalists are singing different words from each other – it all became a bit muddy then.

The program booklet was attractive and informative, but not elaborate or lavish. Summer wove an interesting fabric in his introductory note on pages 2-3 where he described the works and their history and ordering, with an occasional bit of humor. The actual program and personnel listing were the centerfold, the former on the right, the latter, on the left. Texts and credited translations for those not in English for the first half were on the pages preceding this and those for the second, on the pages that followed it, except for “The Willow Song,” which was on a separate insert, whether the result of oversight in the preparation or a last-minute addition is unclear. Brief bios of the musicians and composer were on pages 13-15, with an ad for the forthcoming CD, Shakespeare’s Memory, on the back cover. There were black and white illustrations that included photographs of Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Ophelia and reproductions of works of art, two of which (the one on the personnel page, and the one on the insert sheet, John Everett Millais’ iconic painting of the floating corpse in London’s Tate Gallery) were unidentified, as was the photo that served as the background for the cover, oriented in “landscape” format, unlike the rest of the booklet. This was in general a good contribution to a fine evening.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009.

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