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A Singer’s Notes 93: Denève, the TMC Orchestra, and Berlioz; McGegan and Handel; Bernstein’s Candide at Tanglewood

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The excellent Stephane Denève chose two works of Hector Berlioz for his TMCO concert. Wholly remarkable was a performance of Les Nuits d’Été. The maestro gave these songs a sound I’ve never heard before. It was ravishingly quiet to begin with, not unlike the nearly silent playing Simon Rattle can achieve in his Mahler performances. It was like something in the air. Even more unforgettable was the coaching he had done with the young singers, each a Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center. So diaphanous was the orchestral environment for each of the songs, the young voices could merely whisper and be heard. “Au Cimitière” in particular benefitted from this. Sara Lemesh said the words as much as she spoke them. These was not a temporary silences—this was the maestro’s pervasive way throughout the cycle, a way which allowed the singing an intimacy I have rarely heard in a large hall. The exception to this was “Sur les Lagunes”, a lament vividly sung by baritone Conor McDonald. Every bar was a passionate act, and the quiet singing ravishing. I have never quite heard a song cycle performed like this, and I will not forget it. The space and agency it gave the young singers to speak was rare indeed. It changed the whole nature of the piece.

There was a direct and fresh performance of the Symphonie Fantastique to follow, with superb solo work from flutist Johanna Gruskin, and English hornist, Corbin Stair. We heard a completely unaffected performance with an earned energy to it, not a kind of pumped excitement. I dare say that Maestro Denève is becoming a favorite around here, his natural charm and detailed imagination everywhere in evidence.

Amy Freston (Agilea), Amanda Forsythe (Teseo), and Dominique Labelle (Medea) in Handel's Teseo at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.

Amy Freston (Agilea), Amanda Forsythe (Teseo), and Dominique Labelle (Medea) in Handel’s Teseo at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.

Just as remarkable in its easy way was a performance of Handel’s opera Teseo with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan, conductor. Maestro McGegan did not rely on exaggerated effects or wild and crazy tempi. His first-rate instrumentalists simply spoke the language of the eighteenth century with naturalness. No points were being made. The style was trusted, not preached out. There was wonderful singing. At the top of the list must go soprano Dominique Labelle. It is no secret by now that Ms. Labelle is one of my favorite singers. In this concert, as always, she invited us with the inside of her sound to hear beyond the ending of the phrase. She gives you a line which you complete in your own imagination. You feel like you participate in her singing. She does not overact. There is an economy in how she presents a character that is strong. The whole production understood that the style sometimes invites distance. Ms. Labelle’s Medea was able to fit into her most famous aria, “Sibillando,”  touches of humor which made us keep just that little bit of distance from the plain fact that she was lethal. At the same time the style can be utterly serious as in the sad music of the ingenue Agilea, plaintively sung by English soprano Amy Feston. Drew Minter is a master of the stage, subtle at one moment, and out there the next. In excellent voice, he gave a portrait of King Egeo which constantly kept us watching. Robin Blase was the subtle rich-voiced Arcane, Amanda Forsythe’s Theseus was a strong, clarion hero, and Celine Ricci’s native Italian sound splendid in her passionate singing. She, again, was not afraid to inject a little humor into the situation. Because of the ease and clarity of purpose of this ensemble, we heard a true-blue 18th century style. This was world class.

The BSO performs Candide with singers (l-r) Anna Christy, Nicholas Phan, Bramwell Tovey conduting, Richard Suart, Frederica von Stade, Paul LaRosa. Photo Hilary Scott.

The BSO performs Candide with singers (l-r) Anna Christy, Nicholas Phan, Bramwell Tovey conduting, Richard Suart, Frederica von Stade, Paul LaRosa. Photo Hilary Scott.

Candide is likable, right? In fact, I have tried to like it for years. Even in the theatre, I don’t quite get a thread which carries me through. Episode after episode of intended irony tires me. The book itself is brittle, deliberately so. Voltaire, after all, hid his name from this opus, trying to avoid another prison sentence. Sometimes Leonard Bernstein brings it back to life. Sometimes it just seems like trying. Perhaps this is the reason why there are so many versions, songs put in — songs left out. Don’t get me wrong- there is great stuff in the show. “Glitter and Be Gay”, sung to perfection in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert version by Anna Christy, is a piece which has found its balance. It is out there, but it also has a touching center to it which speaks to the heart (if it isn’t exaggerated). Ms. Christy’s Cunégonde struck a balance that really made it work. I love Martin’s laughing solo after the “Auto da Fey,” a complex number with just about every kind of vocalization you can imagine. Richard Suart sang this and Pangloss’s music with great poise and spoke with a delicious, rolling humor that held the crowd. There was, in fact, no weak link in this performance vocally. Nicholas Phan who has the best shot at a complete performance in the concert version, took full advantage of his time on stage. Singing beautifully, exquisitely in the soft passages, he gave us a complete character. Frederika von Stade sounded great as The Old Lady, and played it up just enough. Small roles were very well taken, Beau Gibson’s ringing Governor and Paul LaRosa’s sonorous (and for once, believable) Maximillian in particular. Of course the ending thrills, especially with a great orchestra playing it. I need to adjust my ears and appreciate the fact that Candide is a different kind of narrative than West Side Story. Coherence is not everything, but it is not a negligible thing either. I have forgotten one other principal role which was splendidly, vividly taken – the Chorus- in this case the superb Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, director.

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