'Verlaine and Rimbaud' has the poetry but not the passion
By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff | January 8, 2005
Intermezzo: The New England Chamber Opera Series adventurously alternates standard 20th-century chamber operas with new works. The company opened its third season last night with its sixth world premiere, "Verlaine and Rimbaud" by David Paul Gibson.
In brief pre-performance remarks Gibson referred to his 15-year friendship with baritone John Whittlesey, founder and artistic director of the company, and thanked him for the opportunity to experience his own music in performance -- "now I can take it home and work some more on it." Let us hope he does, because the piece does need work, but it also has something going for it beyond the sensational subject matter, the erotic and artistic relationship between the established poet Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, the rebel genius 10 years his junior.
Eighteen brief, pivotal scenes adding up to about an hour chart the emotional temperature. The libretto, Gibson's own, alternates exposition with settings of poems by the pair in new English translations. The exposition is elementary and sometimes pretentious (Rimbaud's poetry, Verlaine's wife sings, is a pearl produced by "a cancerous oyster"). And there is way too much of it -- the text treats this complex symbiotic relationship in shorthand terms reminiscent of "The Owl and the Pussycat." The poems, and their settings, are effective and even eloquent, and Gibson skillfully moves among recitative, aria, and ensemble in a conservative musical style influenced by Britten and, appropriately, French composers. But the piece needs to be longer, to probe deeper. Too much of it advances at the same tempo and emotional pitch; it lacks variety and real passion. The accompaniment is scored for piano and violin; the violin is occasionally intrusive, like a gypsy bearing down on your table in a restaurant, something you probably wouldn't feel if the composer were to rescore for a slightly larger ensemble.
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