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S & H International Concert Review

ERWARTUNG/LA VOIX HUMAINE, Jessye Norman, soprano, Theatre du Châtelet, Paris, October 5, 2002 (FC)


"Triumph" is a hot-button word often overused by music writers. Editors love it Ė it usually appears in the headline Ė and readers like its visceral appeal. Can a 57 year old semi-retired soprano icon, tripped up by a misconceived production in last yearís season opener at the same venue, return and recover her acclaim - alone on stage, singing a program of devilish artistic challenge? If her name is Jessye Norman, the answer is yes and "triumph" is appropriately applied.

Although totaling little more than one hour of music, her program of Schönbergís Erwartung and Francis Poulencís La Voix humaine, opening the Châtelet Theater season, spans a daunting musical and interpretative range. Moving comfortably in the two languages she paints a moving portrait of the two women in extremis emotionally. In the opening Erwartung her intense portrayal of a deranged woman searching the woods for her lost husband was gripping in its impact. In the Poulenc, Miss Norman moved between sensuality and panic as she speaks for the last time with her lover, reminding us again of her infrequently seen but genuine gifts as a singing actress. A bit of the silk is missing from her voice but the power, accuracy and her sumptuous sense of phrasing is still on full display.

If one were to quibble, the delicate nature, which the composer had in mind for the woman on the telephone in La Voix humaine, is not Miss Normanís style. The original recording of this work, with soprano Denise Duval, and a new recording with Dame Felicity Lott, adheres to this idea. Miss Normanís desolation is big-boned and passionate and, I believe, plays as well as the original conception.

The stage direction, by André Heller, is clarity itself and could not be a greater contrast from the Robert Wilson production of Die Winterreise last year whose abstractions left Norman interpretatively limp. The Erwartung set, created by the noted contemporary Italian artist Mimmo Paladino, is peopled with ghostlike images effectively spotlighted to correspond with the musical moment. Hellerís La Voix set is simply a table, telephone, divan and two walls of gray-blue that gradually turn to red as doom approaches. David Robertson and the Orchestre National de Lyon were Miss Normanís able partners in the pit. Two lyric masterpieces of the Twentieth Century, seldom seen on stage, were given powerfully persuasive readings by a diva that still has so much to offer. Performances are repeated on the 9 and 13 October and will be broadcast on the radio band France Musiques on October 30 at 8 pm.

Frank Cadenhead

Photo credit: Carol Friedman

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