"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
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.
Photo credit: Carol Friedman