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Monday, January 31, 2011

Opera Review: Weekend at Bérénice

The only extant photograph of composer Albéric Magnard.
On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra presented the U.S. premiere of Bérénice, the final opera by nearly forgotten French Romantic composer Albéric Magnard. The concert performance was conducted by ASO director Leon Botstein.

Magnard was part of the post-Wagnerian movement in early 20th century France. He wrote in a sweeping, chromatic idiom and used a system of carefully developed leitmotifs. Like his countryman Ernest Chausson, Magnard's music is of the hothouse variety, a feverish brand of late Romanticism that sweeps over the listener with lush strings and noble brass. Bérénice, a re-working of a play by Racine is his third opera. Magnard was killed in 1914, defending his country home from invading German troops in the early days of World War One.

Bérénice (Michaela Martens) is the Queen of Judea. Her country is sacked by Titus (Brian Mulligan) the heir to the Roman Empire and son of the Emperor Vespasian. The story tells of the collapse of their love affair, caused by Titus' elevation to the position of Emperor. Eventually, she ditches him and Rome, and cuts off her hair in a self-sacrificing gesture as her ship sails back to Judea.

Unusually, this opera has no major parts for tenors or sopranos. Michaela Martens made a strong impression as Bérénice, despite being onstage for three hours and having to do battle with Magnard's weighty orchestration. The mezzo made an admirable effort, delivering a fine dramatic performance and conserving her energies for the peroration that ends the opera. As Titus, Brian Mulligan sang with a warm, powerful baritone in idiomatic French. The Emperor is a difficult role with a high tessitura, and the singer was clearly flagging in the final duet.

As Mucien, the Emperor's retainer, bass Gregory Reinhart showed a powerful, stentorian instrument, dark and sturdy.  Mezzo Margaret Lattimore reached down to the depths of her instrument for the role of Lia, Bérénice's lady-in-waiting. The Collegiate Chorale contributed strong choral support, but one wishes that Magnard had written more for his grand vision than a few short, supporting choruses.

It is a pity that these four fine performances were heard in an opera that is dramatically inert. Bérénice is a kind of Tristan in reverse, with the lovers engaged and passionate at the beginning. As the work develops, the Emperor and his would-be bride are driven apart by politics and their own choices. Unusually for a tragic opera, Bérénice and Titus survive the evening--a possible factor in the work's lack of popularity.

What really sinks Bérénice is Magnard's libretto. (He's no Wagner.) Crudely written, unintentionally hilarious dialogue ("Your logic is as sharp as a broadsword") contributes to leaden pacing, with each act culminating in a lengthy duet. Very little happens in three hours. Leon Botstein did his best with the American Symphony Orchestra forces. That said, the enterprising maestro might want to admit an unwelcome truth: some operas deserve their obscurity.

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