St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 17 January 2014
Alban Berg: Lyric Suite (Three Movements, arranged for string orchestra by the composer)
Richard Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique
Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Soprano: Emma Bell
Conductor: Lothar Koenigs
The status of women in opera is fraught with social and artistic contention. No masculine term carries the equivalent power of ‘prima donna’ or ‘first lady’ which, in opera, denotes the soprano heroine around whom both narrative and music often pivots*. But the accolade is an ambivalent one for, as Roger Parker has noted of nineteenth century opera – in a comment which carries far wider resonance – there are largely two types of women to be found: ‘the docile ones who usually suffer and die; and the scary ones who almost always suffer and die.’ Murder, banishment, abandonment, fatal illness, torture, suicide, despair: these are the fates which await the heroines of tragic opera, regardless of where that heroine might sit on the sliding scale from passive to strong spirited.
‘Fallen Women’ are so common in opera as to be cliché. This season, Welsh National Opera is putting the term under the microscope with dramatically linked new productions of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Henze’s 1950s’ take on Manon’s story, Solitude Boulevard, together with a reprise of David McVicar’s classic production of Verdi’s literal ‘fallen woman’, La traviata. Of course, these operas were composed by men, depicting stories by men from a male-dominated world. Still today, in our less polarised yet unequal society, operas are more often than not written, conducted, and even directed by men, as these will be this season (here’s an interview with director Mariusz Treliński). So the opportunity to consider issues affecting contemporary young women from a woman’s perspective will be welcome indeed with a staging, by WNO Youth Opera in March, of Errollyn Wallen’s new work for young people, ANON. How ‘Anon’ might be related to ‘Manon’ will be intriguing to discover.
This concert by the WNO Orchestra was intended to introduce the ‘fallen women’ theme, with three works inspired by a composer’s impossible love for a particular woman; Berg’s yearning string orchestra arrangement of three inner movements from his Lyric Suite, encoded with references to Hanna Fuchs; Wagner’s uniquely intimate Wesendonck Lieder, setting poems of love by Mathilde Wesendonck, and Berlioz’s revolutionary Symphonie fantastique, an outpouring of frustrated passion for the actress Harriet Smithson. But, whilst this programme made for a satisfying – not to mention superbly performed – concert, ‘impossible love’ by no means equals ‘fallen woman’, which was confused here with quite different themes of the ‘muse’ and the ‘forbidden woman’. For it is sexual trangression which causes a woman to ‘fall’, thereby unleashing the retribution of her society. As far as we know, however, none of these women transgressed through seducing, betraying nor, indeed, submitting to their wooer. Rather, they were unattainable – and that, in the case of Smithson only temporarily, as she eventually consented to marry the man who had made her his psychological-come-musical idée fixe (unsurprisingly, the marriage did not last long). Wesendonck and Fuchs were already married – as were their would-be lovers, Wagner and Berg. These women were not fictional operatic characters. The fact that their respective composers turned them into highly romanticised fantasies encoded into music (whether for public or private consumption) says more about the composers and the prevailing aesthetic than it does about the women themselves or women in general. Indeed, the potent fascination with the female ‘muse’ still common today, and the complex, paradoxical relationship of this idea to modern-day notions of ‘fallen women’,** tells us more about our society’s continued enthrallment to the cultural and aesthetic norms of the nineteenth century than it tells us about actual women.
Happily, the confused theme did not detract from an evening of outstanding music-making, with the WNO Orchestra under conductor Lothar Koenigs, joined for the Wagner by soprano Emma Bell, together on excellent form. A wonderful array of colours, energy and dramatic contrast greeted the St David’s Hall audience. Especially striking were the evident commitment of the musicians and the detailed fineness of phrasing and articulation, which Koenigs deftly shaped into a dramatic whole in each piece, culminating in a Symphonie fantastique which was both riotous and grotesque without tipping overboard or becoming sloppy.
Berg’s Lyric Suite arrangement set a delicately serious tone, with the composer’s original forces of string quartet expanded into an ensemble of lush, ethereal orchestral textures. It was only in the 1970s of course, that George Perle discovered the entwined numerological and poetic symbolism embedded at the secret, structural heart of this exquisite work. Tonight, searing yet often pianissimo lines combined with wonderfully tight pizzicato and col legno in a luminous, almost impressionist performance evocative of tortured love. High praise is due to section leaders Stephen Bingham, Philip Heyman and, in particular, William Schofield and orchestra leader David Adams.
That this orchestra instinctively knows how to accompany is undoubted, but the sensitivity of ensemble with Emma Bell in the Wagner was acute. I had remembered Bell as a fine, intelligent Elsa in WNO’s Lohengrin last year but was taken aback by the sheer mellifluousness of her voice on this occasion. Initial tiny hints of a vocal catch in the upper register were soon dismissed to produce a beautifully rounded tone in tender service of music saturated with pre-Tristan und Isolde passion and pathos. The fourth and fifth songs, Schmerzen and Träume, were especially beguiling, with the brass and woodwind shining in support (though the lack of reproduction of the text in the programme was an oversight).
Berlioz is famous for his radical orchestration as well as his dramatic symphonic narratives, and Koenig’s players entered into the spirit of the fantastique with gusto. Not tonight the ‘post-classical’ Berlioz with smooth, rounded edges – nor the patchwork dilettante of misguided lore – but a truer, edgier portrait of a composer always highly charged, but here completely gripped by a narcotically-aided monomania. For it is he – not Smithson – who we see in this dreamscape, by turns alluring and alarming. Berlioz effectively wrote his own pathology into the score as he stalked the actress, determined to win his Ophelia. Indeed, Francesca Brittan has pointed out that, as a one-time medical student, Berlioz would have had particular insight into the fashion in Paris at the time for the new scientific theories of romantic obsession as nervous disorder, developed by Jean-Etienne-Dominique Esquirol and others. Berlioz himself wrote of his fixation in 1830 that ‘sometimes I can scarcely endure this mental or physical pain (I can’t separate the two), especially on fine summer days when I’m in an open space … alone … I suffer so much … that if I did not take a grip of myself I should shout and roll on the ground.’ Fallen? I should say so – but into what? And, of course, this is the composer, not the object of his desire.
* ‘primo uovo’ (usually a tenor) denotes the ‘first man’ of an opera company or production but it lacks the iconicity of ‘prima donna’.
** for instance, on the one hand, famous women who embody highly sexualised ideals of feminine glamour and beauty continue to inspire outpourings of artistic and other forms of devotion but, on the other, ordinary women who dress in ways reflecting those ideals are often seen as ‘asking’ to be raped.