This concert, one of several this week at the Barbican Centre to feature Spotlight Artist Joyce DiDonato, focused on music that could broadly be associated with La Belle Époque. Although the era between 1871 and 1914 is traditionally seen as one in which Paris was ‘effortlessly’ pre-eminent in all of the arts, with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism walking arm in arm with Proust, Zola, Saint-Saëns and Ravel, Christopher Cook suggests that the reality was somewhat different. The defeats by Germany, and of the Paris commune, in 1870-71 left a lasting sense of unease, and many of the artistic achievements of the era represented attempts to assert French identity in order to combat feelings of humiliation.
The response of Reynaldo Hahn was to recall nostalgically a French golden era that probably never existed. In this respect, his six songs that make up Venezia, written when he visited Venice in 1900, look back to Gounod, while their vocal lines recall Massenet (both composers had been his teachers). DiDonato sang them from a stool, explaining that she had sprained her ankle and joking that she really needed a new gimmick for London (in 2009 she broke her fibula during opening night of Il barbiere di Siviglia).
The songs, set generally to older Italian texts, paint an idealised picture of Venice, and reflect on success and failure in love. In the opening ‘Sopra l’acqua indormenzada’ (Over the tranquil waters) DiDonato revealed how well her voice works with the acoustic of Milton Court Concert Hall, with the sound feeling both sumptuous and clear. If anything, ‘La barcheta’ (The little boat) was even more affecting as, set at night, it carried more sense of mystique and foreboding, and enabled DiDonato to bring greater weight and gravitas to her sound. Her repeated cries of ‘Ah’ were spellbinding as she applied just the right level of vibrato to her voice as it swelled and receded. At the quietest point it looked as if her lips were almost pressed together although the sound remained crystal clear.
At the other end of the spectrum, she sang ‘La biandina in gondoleta’ (The blonde girl in the gondola) and ‘Che peca!’ (What a shame!) virtually draped over the piano. This proved perfect for these more playful salon songs, although both carry slightly dark undertones albeit for different reasons in each instance. She was accompanied by Jake Heggie, the composer of the evening’s main piece, who gave all the respect to the piano lines that they deserve, since it is only on the surface that they seem simpler than those of Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise.
This was followed by a performance from the Brentano String Quartet of Debussy’s String Quartet of 1893. This proved highly accomplished and with the different lines being strongly delineated it became easy to appreciate how Debussy was creating unique music that, in turn, could be used to uphold the notion of ‘Frenchness.’ His composition achieves this predominantly through its emphasis on thematic transformation rather than development, but also in its innovative approaches to manifesting chords and rhythms, which mirror the new aesthetic in French art of the time.
The second half of the programme, though featuring a very recent composition by Jake Heggie, focused on a key figure of La Belle Époque, the sculptor Camille Claudel. When Rodin first met her he declared that ‘My dull existence broke into a fire of joy’ in a phrase that gave rise to the title of the composer’s 35-minute song cycle, Camille Claudel: Into the Fire. What relationship they had (she never lived with him) lasted around ten years before Rodin’s refusal to break things off with Rose Beuret drove them apart, and Claudel spent the second half or her life in a mental asylum. The piece, enjoying its European premiere having first been performed in San Francisco in 2012, contains six songs plus an instrumental movement, with the majority of them using a specific work of art as their point of departure.
DiDonato was joined by the Brentano String Quartet for the cycle, and Heggie’s score proved deeply moving. Significant variation occurred across it, but we could typically hear the first violin providing a beautiful though melancholic line of melody while the other strings supported this with more sharply defined rhythms or pizzicato. At different times I was reminded of 1950s French New Wave film soundtracks, those works of John Tavener inspired by the Greek Orthodox tradition and the minimalism of Steve Reich. Whether the parallels stand up to close scrutiny or not, the purpose in making the point is not to suggest that the piece is derivative. On the contrary, its innovation comes from drawing upon such a wide range of traditions and styles to produce something with such a unique voice.
With libretto by Gene Scheer, the songs are sung from Claudel’s perspective as on her last day of ‘freedom’ in 1913 she looks back on her time with Rodin. DiDonato impressed with the sheer degree of sensitivity that she brought to her communication of longing, fear, uncertainty and vulnerability. Particularly powerful was the opening song ‘Rodin’, in which her love for him combines with her profession as a sculptor to create such lines as ‘In the clay I search with my fingers to uncover something true’. DiDonato’s oft repeated cries of ‘Rodin’ were also highly poignant as each was made slightly different through the application of varying degrees of vibrato. Perhaps the most moving song of all, however, was the final one that moves forward to 1929 and in which Claudel says to her visitor at the mental asylum, and by extension us who are listening to her story, ‘Thank you for remembering me’.
The CD Here/After: Songs of Lost Voices, featuring compositions by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer including Camille Claudel: Into the Fire performed by Joyce DiDonato and the Alexander String Quartet, is available on the Pentatone label.