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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Opera Review: Half Made-Up

The American Symphony Orchestra present Franz Schmidt's Notre Dame.
Another unlikely adaptation: The Incredible Hulk
vs. Quasimodo
Art by Sal Buscema and
Steve Mitchell.© 1983 Marvel Comics Group.

In its long history, Victor Hugo's novel Notre-Dame de Paris (a.k.a. The Hunchback of Notre Dame) has been subject to many adaptations. On Sunday afternoon, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra presented a rarely heard one: Franz Schmidt's 1914 opera Notre Dame

Schmidt (1874-1939) was an Austrian composer, the author of four powerful symphonies that are favorites with brass players. He faded into obscurity after World War II, although he has his champions: including Dr. Botstein and Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst. A post-Wagnerian (who played cello in the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Gustav Mahler) Schmidt's musical idiom falls between the brassy religiosity of Bruckner and the Viennese wit of Richard Strauss. 

The music uses leitmotifs, a series of short themes depicting Hugo's colorful characters. Traces of tambourine and minor-key Hungarian violins depict Esmerelda. Powerful brass themes  reference the bell-ringer and his master, the Archdeacon. The two acts feature three scenes each, separated by long symphonic intermezzos to cover the complex stagecraft needed for a full performance of this opera. An organ lends weight to the scene in front of the cathedral. The great bells of Notre Dame are depicted by crashing gongs at the opera's close. 

Leon Botstein managed the big forces of this opera with skill, drawing some beautiful lyric lines in the Intermezzo, the only part of this work performed with any regularity. There were some dynamic problems in the second act, with the soloists being drowned out by the waves of sound, but the last bars crashed home with stunning power. 

The opera moves the focus of Hugo's story away from Quasimodo, the hunchback, and onto Esmerelda, the innocent Gypsy girl. Here, she was played by soprano Lori Gulbeau, who has a pleasing soprano with spinto power and some flexibility. Ms. Gulbeau projected Esmerelda's deadly cocktail of sexuality and innocence, creating a moving portrayal of this compassionate character. Like a less ruthless version of Carmen, she is a force of nature, causing the downfall of all four male leads by simply existing.

The most significant of these four would-be paramours is the Arch-Deacon of Notre Dame. (Claude Frollo in the novel.) He is the very picture of religious rectitude and sexual frustration. Stephen Powell walked a fine line between piety and desparation, using his potent baritone in the prison scene to convincingly portray the deacon's capricious, ambivalent attitude toward Esmerelda. He repents at the last moment, crying for her to live as she is executed, but falls off the cathedral.

The most difficult casting requirement is a pair of heroic tenors. They're required to play Grigoire (Esmerelda's unloved Gypsy husband) and Phoebus, the young knight she falls for. requires two heldentenors for the roles of Phoebus and Gringoire. Robert Chafin moved between heroic voice and characterful, whispered singing as Grigoire. Corey Bix displayed impressive, ringing tone as Phoebus, with the right hint of metal in his voice. 

Turkish bass Burak Bilgili sang Quasimodo with a harsh,  guttural delivery, growling out the bell-ringer's part with power and authority. One sensed the hunchback's despair following the execution of Esmerelda and his subsequent murder of the Archdeacon. In this final scene, Schmidt's opera rose to the tragic heights of Victor Hugo's novel.

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