The past recaptured: Out conductors bring back classical rarities

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday August 1, 2023
Share this Post:
Conductors Christophe Rousset, Yannick Nezet-Seguin and Christoph Eschenbach (photo: Eric Brissaud)
Conductors Christophe Rousset, Yannick Nezet-Seguin and Christoph Eschenbach (photo: Eric Brissaud)

The huge expansion of the active opera repertory that has taken place in our lifetimes has been less about birthing viable new operas than with the revivals of "old" operas that have, over time, fallen off the stage. The notion that operas fade into the wings because they're not up to snuff —some conservative wags have dubbed revivals "exhumations"— is now itself out of date.

No other living musician has done more not just to reinstate neglected operas but also to prove why they were once exemplary and still reward re-hearings than Christophe Rousset, leading his now 30-year-old ensemble Les Talens Lyriques. It's now become a bit of a shock when the intrepid band turns its attention to repertory chestnuts like Gounod's "Faust," but when they do, they make the old new again. Now a recording of Gaspare Spontini's "La Vestale" (Palazetto Bru Zane) has gotten its turn.

Turning the light back on
The opera, which had its premiere in Paris in 1807, tells the story of Vestal Virgin Julia, who almost fatally lets the fire on the sacred altar go out. Predictable amorous chaos ensues until, three acts and onstage hours later, a stroke of lightning rekindles the flame.

This manifestation of divine forgiveness of Julia leads promptly to her now-sanctioned marriage to Roman General Licinius. A major success (admired by no less than Berlioz and Wagner), it has yielded some revivals in French, but its tenuous place in the repertory since has benefitted from a translation into Italian by which it has largely been known.

Important singers have taken on the role of Julia over the decades, but it was the recording of the 1954 La Scala production featuring Maria Callas, and her famous performance of its main aria in a Frankfurt recital in 1959, that has kept Julia's nose over the water line ever since. But even Callas at her most fiery can't wholly conceal that rather static oratorio of the Italian "Vestale."

This is not the first time Rousset has pulled this lapin out of his chapeau. In 2012 he released a video of Cherubini's "Medee" featuring Nadja Michael —nobody's idea of an early-music singer— tricked out for this staged production as Amy Winehouse. Rousset's point has been that the Italian-born Spontini and Cherubini put themselves on the opera map in France and that a return to the first French versions results in performances that are not just stylistically more "authentic" but genuinely gripping dramas preceding their more straight-laced Italian retreads.

Of course there's more to translation than a swap of words, and the Italian "La Vestale" is nearly a different opera from its French parent. As with the Italian "Medea," the success of any "Vestale" has largely depended on star performers willing to sing the hell of the thing. For Rousset, Marina Rebeka is tasked with making her mark in Callas's sonic shadow, but she is as incisive and individual.

There's nothing pastel about Rousset's mainly francophone cast. It's an object lesson in the particulars of French singing, a style that is having something of its own revival. You hear it in the agile tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Julia's love interest Licinius) and woodwind-pungent baritone Tassis Christoyannis (Cinna).

But, as usual, it's Rousset's keen sense of style, pungent sonorities —and, preeminently, drama— that fires all the musicians. This "La Vestale" has a future as well as a past.

The Rachmaninov year
If there were major productions of operas by Sergei Rachmaninov during "The Rachmaninov Year," just ending, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth, they would certainly have qualified as revivals, but if there were any, they eluded me. But audiences have never stopped loving, and demanding, music by the man now known as "the Rach" in some circles.

All that was left in question was the preferred transliteration of the composer's name, which no less an authority than the late music scholar Richard Taruskin insisted was Rachmaninov rather than Rachmaninoff, if only because there are no double consonants in his name in the Cyrillic alphabet. I'm with Richard's "ov," but on evidence it appears that the "off" is back on top.

It is, anyway, in the new recordings of the composer's Second and Third Symphonies and tone poem "The Isle of the Dead," bringing to a finish Yannick Nezet-Seguin's illustrious survey of the major orchestral music with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The orchestra's long, direct Rachmaninov association began in 1909, when Rach was in the audience for the Philadelphia premiere of the Second, having conducted the premiere the previous year.

The Second —the big-ticket item here— can be a long night in the auditorium, with multiple orgasms that can be cumulatively draining. Nezet-Seguin spares us excesses in a performance rich in both detail and sweep. You really can hear everything in the score, with the elements in ideal balance, all stretched over a huge dynamic canvas near inaudibility at the lower end.

Glad as you are that Nezet-Seguin does not fake an orgasm, beneath or behind it all there's a weird, unexpected reticence that can increasingly feel like a lack of depth. The orchestra (and most of the music world, really) is even more besotted with Nezet-Seguin than with Rach. The instrumentalists play their hearts out for him if not quite for all of us.

Buyer beware: The international celebration included a touring gala performance of all four of his piano concertos and the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" in a single concert, with the indefatigable Yuja Wang in tandem with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin. (Oddly, the version that will be released on August 23 is with the LA Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel.)

Does sex sell?
In the first third of the last century, Franz Schreker was a composer of original operas second only to Richard Strauss. The difference between the two men's work was less musical than thematic. Schreker, who wrote his own librettos, drew heavily from the burgeoning psychology of his era to create dramas with a psycho-sexual focus that can make "Salome" and "Elektra" seem tame or at least better behaved.

Nazi persecution put an end to Schreker's career (and, eventually, life), and for decades the only two of his completed operas to maintain a place, however tenuous, in the repertory were "Der ferne Klang" and "Die Gezeichneten."

Recently, enterprising European opera companies have mounted productions of all the Schreker operas, while on this side of the Atlantic, only the two biggies have been staged.

Schreker's penchant for technicolor orchestration and his overall genius with instrumental music —music not tied to texts— kept his work in such circulation as it had. In a new recording of suites and chamber compositions, conductor Christoph Eschenbach, leading Berlin's Concerthouse Orchestra (DG), captures Schreker's unique idiom, beginning with the Nachtstück interlude from "Der ferne Klang."

Schreker's music is deliberately unsettling, and throughout the two-CD set, Eschenbach exhibits a willingness to plumb its depths and explore its haunting mysteries. The accounts of the Chamber Symphony, the Kleine Suite, and the Romantische Suite are now the best in a not inconsiderable catalog of instrumental recordings.

Taking the place of opera excerpts here are five orchestral songs superbly sung by Matthias Goerne and the early two-song cycle "Von ewigen Leben" ("On Eternal Life"), featuring soprano Chen Reiss. The texts for the latter are by Walt Whitman, and those for the orchestral songs from a German translation of the "Arabian Nights."

Even at its most pointed Schreker's vocal music can be elusive, but these superb musicians cut to the expressive chase with revelatory fervor, yielding sonorities that decay only in the natural way sounds do, otherwise leaving lingering, if often disturbing, impressions. Eschenbach has succeeded in making music that can be hard to get a grip on theatrically gripping.

Gaspare Spontini, "La Vestale," Les Talens Lyriques, Flemish Radio Choir, Christophe Rousset, director, Palazetto Bru Zane, 2 CDs and streaming, $39.95

Sergei Rachmaninoff, Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, "The Isle of the Dead," Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conductor, CD and streaming, $19.98

Franz Schreker, "Der ferne Klang," orchestral works and songs, Konzerthausorchester Berlin, baritone Matthias Gorne, soprano Chen Reiss, DG, 2 CDs and streaming, $19.98

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.