Thursday 16 April 2015

Joyce DiDonato in Camille Claudel: Into the Fire

Camille Claudel in her studio
Camille Claudel in her studio
Reynaldo Hahn, Claude Debussy, Jake Heggie; Joyce DiDonato, Brentano String Quartet, Jake Heggie; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 4 2015
Star rating: 4.0

European premiere of Jake Heggie's song cycle based on Camille Claudel

Jake Heggie's song cycle Camille Claudel: Into the Fire was written for Joyce DiDonato and she gave the work's European premiere at a concert at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Milton Court Concert Hall on Tuesday 4 April 2015 as part of her residency at the Barbican. Accompanied by Jake Heggie, Joyce DiDonato performed Reynaldo Hahn's Venezia, then the Brentano String Quartet performed Debussy's String Quartet, finally in the second half Joyce DiDonato was accompanied by the Brentano String Quartet in Jake Heggie's song cycle.

The programme was put together by Joyce DiDonato and Jake Heggie, based around the new work. Debussy's string quartet was included because Jake Heggie had been so influenced by the piece when writing Camille Claudel: Into the Fire. But it was not entirely clear why a group of songs to Italian texts which were written in Venice in 1900 by the Venezuelan born (but Parisian by adoption) Reynaldo Hahn. But no matter, the songs are lovely and make a seductive start to the concert.

Resplendent in a multi-coloured dress, but in mismatched shoes and having to sit (because of a sprained ankle), Joyce DiDonato showed herself to be at her most artful in these finely crafted performances. The six songs all set 17th and 18th century poetry about love, gondolas and water. In each, Joyce DiDonato created a vibrant character. To Sopra l'acqua indormenzada she brought a rich dark, vibrant voice but each phrase was carefully caressed and shaped, with a richly vivid language. La barchetta (in which the poet describes exactly what he is doing to Nineta she sleeps) was more plangent and the vocalise at the end of each verse simply made you tingle with delight.
L'avertimento was vividly sung with a very up-front chest voice and drama, here Joyce DiDonato was clearly channelling her experience playing trouser roles. La biondina in gondoleta and Che peca as similarly strong, and full of character, finally La primavera was all lightness and air.
I have to confess that as much as I enjoyed these performances, I did wonder whether Joyce DiDonato and Jake Heggie might not have been too artful, to have too carefully crafted the songs, and that an element of freedom and spontaneity might have been welcome. After all Reynaldo Hahn is reputed have premiered the songs in Venice, whilst singing in a gondola!

Claude Debussy was 31 when he wrote his only quartet. Rather older than the 18 year-old pianist composer who had gone from acting as accompanist to the soprano Madame Marie Vasnier, to writing her ardent songs (the Vasnier Songbook) and becoming her lover. But the performance of the quartet by the Brentano String Quartet (Mark Steinberg, Serena Canin, Misha Amory, Nina Maria Lee) had all the urgency, vibrancy and passion that you might expect from the young composer. It wasn't perhaps the refined elegance and subtle harmonic shifting that we associate with the Debussy of Pelleas et Melisande but the Brentano String Quartet's virile performance had an intensity of passion which sat very well in a programme devoted to Camille Claudel and her sad tale.

The opening movement of Debussy's quartet was muscular and full blooded, with the four players giving us very strong phrasing and articulation and lots of rubrato. It was clear that they are very experienced together, they lived and breathed the music. This might be dramatically urgent, but it was never rough, always superbly and confidently phrased with a remarkable unanimity. The second movement was equally strongly characterised with full pizzicato complementing a darkly dramatic viola. There were delicate moments too, and some lovely sweet lyrical contrast, but always with an underlying strength. The third movement was quiet and muted, but not too relaxed with vibrant phrases and an almost virile intensity. In the middle section the urgency turned to real passion, before calming down. Finally the rhetorical phrases of the last movement led to some seething emotion.

Jake Heggie's song cycle Camille Claudel: Into the Fire was conceived when the composer saw the 1989 film Camille Claudel which dramatise her relationship with Rodin. A talented sculptor in her own right, she was very much in his shadow and did not cope well with his ultimate rejection. She was eventually committed to an insane asylum, but not before destroying the majority of her work.

For the song cycle, Jake Heggie turned to long-time collaborator Gene Scheer for the words. Gene Scheer has written the librettos to a number of Jake Heggie's operas including, Moby Dick, and Three December. Jake Heggie's best known opera, perhaps, remains Dead Man Walking (written 2000) which is a work which still awaits its UK stage premiere.

For Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, Gene Scheer had written six songs each of which depict a different one of Camille Claudel's moods in the insane asylum and in the last song she is visited by her friend Jessie Lipscomb with whom she shared a studio many years earlier. All this is poignant and touching stuff, with three of the songs depicting the way Camille Claudel's mind wanders.

The first song Rodin started with a long lyrical complex texture for the strings with a hint of the dance and a hint of a tune. When Joyce DiDonato came in, she had a lyrical arioso to which she gave a passionate intensity and a sense of identification. The strings wove their melodies around the arioso. For La Valse, Joyce DiDonato had a more lyrical, more structured melody with a rather expressionist middle when Claudel seems to wander from the present. Again the strings wove their magic round Joyce DiDonato. In the next two songs, Shakuntala and La petite chateleine Camille Claudel seemed to be in her own particular world, and Jake Heggie seemed to represent this by giving Joyce DiDonato more obviously melodic material. The first was a lovely exotic melody, and the second a rather lovely waltz.  In The Gossips we seem to come back to the present, and there was a lovely long slow plangent vocal line over the busy strings. The final song returned more to the conversational style of the opening.

There were all sorts melodic hints in the music. Some of Jake Heggie's vocal lines evoked for me Ravel's melodies from the Chansons Madecasses, whilst the hints of melody in the strings were intriguing and nagged at our brains as if they were familiar. The composer had clearly taken a lot of care on the shape and feel of the vocal line so that it would suit Joyce DiDonato's voice and she gave a strongly identified performance. But I did wonder whether too much care had been taken and whether he should have taken more risks. Camille Claudel's story is intense and tragic, but all the intensity in performance seemed to come from Joyce DiDonato rather than from the music. These were finely constructed songs, but I missed a sense of grit, of edge and what there was seemed to come from the strings. The performance from the Brentano String Quartet was very fine, providing lovely support for Joyce DiDonato and creating some lovely string textures (and yes, it did evoke Debussy).

The concert drew a tumultuous reception from the audience, and Jake Heggie returned to the stage to join Joyce DiDonato and the Brentano String Quartet in one final piece, an arrangement of Richard Strauss's Morgen. I am not sure how it related to the other items in the programme, but it was ravishing.
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