Wednesday 29 April 2015

Debussy and his Muse

Debussy and his Muse - Gillian Keith & Simon Lepper - photo Robert Workman
Debussy and his Muse - Gillian Keith & Simon Lepper - photo Robert Workman
Debussy and his Muse; Gillian Keith, Simon Lepper, dir: Nina Brazier; Wilton's Music Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 27 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Dramatic exploration of Debussy's infatuation with Marie-Blanche Vasner

Gillian Keith & Simon Lepper - Debussy and his Muse  photo Robert Workman
Gillian Keith & Simon Lepper - Debussy and his Muse 
photo Robert Workman
Listening to soprano Gillian Keith's recent disc of early Debussy songs, I was struck by the rather dramatic story behind them. This thought clearly occurred to Gillian Keith as well as she has developed Debussy and his muse: the story of Achille Debussy and Blanche Vasnier in words and music which Gillian Keith and pianist Simon Lepper premiered at Wilton's Music Hall last night (28 April 2015). Directed by Nina Brazier, the show consisted of Debussy's songs with a linking dramatic narrative which was written and performed by Gillian Keith.

She has mined letters and other writings by Debussy and his contemporaries to put the creation of the early songs into context. In order for it not to turn into a lecture, Gillian Keith created a dramatic context by performing the whole evening as Marie-Blanche Vasnier's daughter reminiscing to us. This could have been a rather arch concept, but Gillian Keith's performance was so beautifully direct and full of charm that instead she drew you into the story. And what a story it was!

Marie-Blanche Vasnier - Jacques-Emile Blanche
Marie-Blanche Vasnier
Jacques-Emile Blanche
18 year old Debussy was found a job as accompanist to a singing teacher, Madame Moreau-Sainti and it was here that Debussy met the singer Marie-Blanche Vasnier who was 14 years his senior and married with children. Debussy seems to have been adopted into the Vasnier household and worked there, having the run of the library. Monsieur Vasnier encouraged Debussy to develop his literary tastes and it was here that Debussy first encountered the poetry of Paul Verlaine as a vehicle for song. But Debussy became infatuated, and more, with Marie-Blanche and poured out a torrent of songs dedicated to her.

Gillian Keith started out with a group of songs setting the scene, Debussy's Nuit d'etoiles dedicated to Madame Moreau-Sainti herself, and Aimons nous et dormons dedicated to Paul Vidal, the friend who got him the job with Madame Moreau-Sainti. Then followed the only songs not by Debussy in the programme, Paul Vidal's Printemps nouveau which was creditably ardent and impulsive, and Edouard Lalo's L'aube nait a finely wrought piece which demonstrated the sort of thing taught by Madame Moreau-Sainti. Her lessons included extended vocalises and Gillian Keith neatly linked some of these to the first song from Debussy's Vasnier Songbook, La Romance d'Ariel with its extended coloratura vocalise sections. From here on Gillian Keith and Simon Lepper took a thematic journey through the Vasnier Songbook and other songs dedicated to Marie-Blanche Vasnier.  All were linked via narrative and quotations from letters, providing just enough context. By using the character of the daughter as her vehicle, Gillian Keith was able to suggest the character discovering the story along with us.

Gillian Keith - Debussy and his muse - photo Robert Workman
Gillian Keith - Debussy and his Muse
photo Robert Workman
There was an inevitably extended section devoted to Verlaine and Gillian Keith and Simon Lepper performed three of the early Verlaine settings, Clair de Lune, Pantomime and En Sourdine as an uninterrupted sequence. Rather imaginatively the rather later piano prelude La fille aux cheveux de lin, played with poise by Simon Lepper, was contrasted with Debussy's Leconte de Lisle setting La fille aux cheveux de lin from the Vasnier songbook.

For the later development of the plot, Gillian Keith allowed the songs to speak for themselves as she combined performances of the songs with reading out Debussy's effusive dedications, each one to Marie-Blanche Vasnier. 'To Madame Vanier, the sole Muse who has ever inspired in me anything resembling a musical feeling (not to mention anything else)...'

That the affair caused problems was apparent from one of Paul Vidal's letters to a friend, but we are never able to hear from Marie-Blanche herself and Gillian Keith's narrative help stand in Marie-Blanche's stead. By the end, Gillian Keith made clear the suggestion that Marie-Blanche's husband encouraged Debussy to apply for the Prix de Rome as a way of detaching the composer from his wife. The last song in the sequence was Regret setting an elegiac poem by Paul Bourget which Debussy set with hypnotic calm which developed into real passion.

Gillian Keith - Debussy and his Muse  photo Robert Workman
Gillian Keith - Debussy and his Muse
photo Robert Workman
In a 75 minute programme, Gillian Keith performed 18 songs, all but four written for Marie-Blanche Vasnier, and her distinctive high, silvery coloratura voice. Who ever knew that Debussy had written quite as much coloratura. When presented with another similar voice, that of Mary Garden the soprano who created Melisande, the mature Debussy's response was very different. In these early songs we got an exotic perfumed world in which the soprano's silvery trilling seduced and enchanted, clearly presenting the young Debussy with an erotic charge. These are not easy songs, and even the simpler ones stick to a high tessitura. But Gillian Keith, a noted Zerbinetta, sang them all with apparent ease and moved well beyond simple technical skill to creating a real sense of character. And throughout she presented the songs with seductive charm. It helped that Wilton's Music Hall has its own delightful feel of faded grandeur which combined with the performances to create a very special mood.

Throughout, pianist Simon Lepper, who had no explicit dramatic role to play, supported and accompanied with poise and discreet charm. Debussy wrote these piano parts for himself to play, and he was no mean pianist so the writing is often complex and full of delicate textures which Simon Lepper made magical.

Gillian Keith and Simon Lepper perform the show at Wilton's Music Hall again tonight (29 April 2015) and there will be further performances at the Buxton Festival and the Edinburgh Festival.
Elsewhere on this blog:

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