A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 17: Great Things All Over

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Down in the splendid old Meeting House at New Marlborough, Kenneth Cooper, Ben Luxon, and the Berkshire Bach Society presented an ingenious program which intrigued me. In the center of it was music which Telemann composed in connection with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Ben read some of the juicier sections of this strange book with his usual cheekiness and resonance. Telemann’s music was played alongside it expertly on modern instruments, but with fluency and quickness, with the exception of one section illustrating the enormous keyboard that Gulliver must play. For this, Mr. Cooper encouraged his players to use one finger only to approximate the difficulty Gulliver might have had. It was hilarious. I would like very much to hear more of Telemann’s music on this subject, and more baroque works which use the spoken voice.

Williamstown Theatre Festival’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was one of the most fully realized comedies I have ever seen on stage. Bristling with ideas from director Jessica Stone, the expert cast somehow maintained a momentum, one might even say a composure, that made the ultra-precise snap of their timing utterly reliable. We assumed that this virtuosity was what we deserved. And boy did we ever get it! I hesitate to single out any of the marvelous players, but I will. There was a strapping fellow, Bryce Pinkham, who sang and played the innocent Hero with some kind of a sublime awkwardness that never cloyed. His singing was the best in the show. His girlfriend (also male) was magically portrayed by David Turner, the natural range of his voice, low as it was, somehow ineffably tender when spoken by someone in a dress. I will not forget this show. It allowed us the exceedingly rare privilege of assuming magnificence. We took it as our due.

Just as the stifling weather was beginning, I heard the olympian Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conduct the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Debussy’s La Mer. As one might expect with this maestro, the performance while not always perfect, was always secure, the colors coming out not as pastels, but as broad brush strokes in primary colors. It was absolutely thrilling to hear the end of the first movement as the great chords rattled the wood of Ozawa Hall, almost as if they were a moral imperative, not just a picture. Better still was the third movement in which the maestro found some serenity and naturalness in the terror of it all, the tear of the waves still sweet to the ear. What I most remember about this concert was the sonority of the piece in the hall, wonderfully loud and sweet.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos

A few days later a chance to revel in Strauss’s incidental music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, conducted by the youngster of the conducting fellows, Alexander Prior. This young man made the music come out. The performance was full of character, each movement very well sung by the instruments. One could hear the words they were saying. His conducting was impetuous, but he also found space in the tender music that I would not have expected from one so young. Sarah Silver was absolutely splendid in the solo violin as was Caleb van der Swaagh playing the cello solo. I had always thought of this piece as “fluff”, but this time it moved me. And did they ever play for him.

Thanks to the effort of our editor, Boydell Press just sent me a reading copy of Gillian Opstad’s Debussy’s Mélisande. This elegant, clear book discusses in detail (which does not fatigue) the involvement of three sopranos with Debussy’s operatic heroine. Most valuable perhaps is the detailed information, full of primary material, that we get about Georgette Leblanc, the mistress of librettist Maurice Maeterlinck, first tapped for the role but supplanted by the genius of Mary Garden. Leblanc is given full treatment and comes out seeming like a serious and compelling artist. But against someone who hears like Garden, what chance did she have? Garden was a famous exaggerator, but somehow one believes her claim that “There was nothing for me to study at Mélisande’s death. Why? Because, I suppose I just died … I never saw where Salome lived. I never was with that great dancer of Egypt, Thais, but I knew her. I knew them all. That sort of thing was always happening to me – the feeling of being someone else and having been somewhere else. I never knew anything about the lives of these women of opera. I had them all in me, in my very flesh and blood… Was it a sixth sense? Maybe. I just don’t know.” The book makes a game effort to give Leblanc, Garden, and Maggie Teyte (who sang Melisande as late as 1948 with what was then called the New York City Center Opera Company and coached with Debussy himself) equal attention. But the rara avis greatness of Mary Garden comes through loud and clear. Well-organized and without pretension, this book feeds you its information easily and keeps you reading.

Mary Garden as Mélisande
Mary Garden as Mélisande
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