Wednesday, 6 July 2011
Bizet in Provence
Last Tuesday I went into BBC Broadcasting House to record this coming Saturday's Building a Library for Radio 3's CD Review: by my own choice, following on from the sunny time spent with Delibes' Coppelia, the subject was Bizet's incidental music for Alphonse Daudet's Provencal tragedy L'Arlesienne. It was actually a chance remark by my friend and unofficial former mentor Dr. Roger Savage that Bizet's Adagietto must be behind Elgar's most introspective moments that led me to listen again, and fall in love.
Of course I can't give even a hint of the 'winner' among the 20 or so recordings. But I would like to sing the praises a little more of the work itself. As I've discovered, all of Bizet's 27 numbers for Daudet's play are worth doing, though they need some kind of dramatic context - and only one of the three contenders there gives that, though unhelpfully it uses German actors (excellent all) rather than French. So it boiled down to a choice between various versions of the famous Suites: the first put together and re-orchestrated by Bizet himself, the second assembled by his friend Guiraud after his death (with a not exactly appropriate borrowing, the Minuet from La Jolie Fille de Perth).
Beyond the striking sax-solo portrait of L'Innocent, the hero of the drama's slow-witted brother who 'comes to his senses' just as Frederi, the protagonist, is abandoning his, and the tragic lovesickness of Frederi himself, there's not much here to tell you what a predominantly dark work this is. You need to hear all the melodramas for the play proper to know that it all ends badly, with a dramatic defenestration. As in Carmen, the merrymaking of the crowd - in the opera, for the bullfight, in the play, for a celebration of the feast of St. Eligius - serves as background to the tragic denouement.
And what a strange play it is, beyond the evocation of Provence which has so much in common with the later images of Van Gogh I've reproduced here. The 'girl from Arles' who gives the hero so much grief never appears: is she a Carmen-like vamp or just an ordinary woman with a history? There's a morbidity about our Frederi which apparently casts back to Daudet's unfortunate experience in his youth: one in which he contracted the syphilis which was to lead to a slow, lingering death (I've just picked up a copy of his sketches on the subject). Like Don Jose, his passion is unquenchable, but the violence is turned against himself. And there's also a Micaela, the village girl Vivette who loves him unquestioningly. Her music provides the real raison d'etre of the Second Suite, apart from its brilliantly effective orchestral combination of Farandole and old Provencal marching song, which we used to sing in Christmas carol services as 'De bon matin, j'ai recontre le train de trois grands rois'.
What did I take away from repeated hearings of the music? That Bizet's woodwind scoring, like Glinka's, is simple but perfect and goes straight to the heart. That the Menuetto's quiet ending may have influenced the Gavotte of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony; that the four-part string writing of the incredibly brief but profound Adagietto, which really ought to be played in the original by a string quartet, undoubtedly made its mark on Elgar, Mahler and Strauss.
This is potent writing on a miniature scale which finds it hard these days to carve out a niche in the concert hall, just as the fastidiously wrought, discreetly sensuous operas of Bizet's devoted friend Massenet no longer play a major role in the repertoire. And I doubt if that will change with the Royal Opera's production of Cendrillon, much as I love the piece and enjoyed most of the production. Read all about it on The Arts Desk, where I've also briefly commented on the Opera North vs Lee Hall presumed-homophobia kerfuffle (fellow blogger Jon Dryden Taylor wrote the response Opera North should have given). In the meantime, enjoy this striking production shot by Bill Cooper of simpatica if surprisingly pale-voiced Joyce DiDonato as Cinders with the stunning mezzo Prince of the real star, Alice Coote.
And don't forget to tune in to Radio 3 on Saturday morning, or go to the iPlayer for a week thereafter. I hope you come to love Bizet's music as much as I do. Next season it's back to the Russians, and I intend to give Prokofiev Vol. 2 a much-needed kick this summer, but I've enjoyed my Gallic interlude beyond measure.