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Portrait du compositeur Vincent d'Indy (1851 - 1931) par Antoine Bourdelle au Musée Bourdelle.
16 Oct 2009

Fervaal by Vincent d’Indy

Vincent d’Indy lived eighty years and, when not composing, spent his time revising the teaching of music in France or simply annoying everybody.

Vincent d’Indy: Fervaal

Fervaal: Richard Crawley; Guilhen: Deanne Meek; Kaito: Barbara Dever; Arfagard: Donnie Ray Albert. American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein, at Avery Fisher Hall. October 14.


Nineteen when Prussia tramped all over his beloved France in 1870, he became a passionate nationalist with all the excesses of the time and place: anti-Germanism became, for him as for many, a racial “Celticism,” and his Francophilia included royalism, anti-Dreyfusism and anti-Semitism. Yet he was too good a musician not to appreciate Wagner and be influenced by Wagnerian method.

As a composer of opera, d’Indy was part of that post-Wagnerian movement determined to find in local folklore ways to celebrate national glory, a movement that produced dozens of works from Ireland to Armenia, most of them long forgotten — Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel is a rare success and survival. D’Indy’s Fervaal, which affects to find in the druids a mythic antidote to sophisticated modern life, is d’Indy’s contribution. It had its premiere in Brussels in 1897 and reached Paris in 1913 — just in time for this sort of perfervid nationalism to cheer entry into World War I; Fervaal has not been fully staged anywhere since. That the hero, a druidic prince of divine descent vowed to chastity — though how that will preserve his dynasty is not made clear — is seduced by the love of a “Saracen” princess. Their doomed union prefigures the death of the old gods and the birth of a world based on love (sound familiar?). The Celtic-Saracen passion might appeal to multiculturalists in modern France, with its huge, disaffected Muslim population, but would probably not delight the aristocratic d’Indy and leaves the auditor puzzled.

Still, as a concert version presented by the American Symphony Orchestra under that indefatigable lover of obscure scores, Leon Botstein, made clear, Fervaal is extraordinary without being especially endearing. The great flaw is that none of the three principal characters has much personality — they declaim at taxing length but they never persuade us that they feel any of the emotions they announce. They do not persuade us that they exist — that they have inner lives, emotions that can be reached by other persons. None of their music possesses the charm d’Indy gives to his choruses, who are variously and convincingly warring tribes, exultant priests, sensuous Saracens, spirits of the clouds or natural forces moaning as storms or winds. D’Indy might have achieved success with a dramatic oratorio had he ever composed one — grand opera on the Meyerbeer or Wagner pattern does not bring out his best.

The opera’s enormous orchestra lacked (Botstein said) several instruments d’Indy requested that are no longer much played. There were an enormous variety of winds and brasses typical of the period, exquisitely deployed: contrabass clarinets, for example, and four saxophones to accompany the apparition of the cloud-goddess Kaito and her cumulonimbus attendants — an answer for those who have doubted the spiritual qualities of the saxophone sound. For orchestral color, d’Indy was clearly a master of the genre — he is perhaps best known for his set of orchestral variations on the legend of the Descent of Ishtar — played in reverse from most complex to least, as the goddess disrobes to her naked theme.

My heart went out to the three lead singers — especially to Richard Crawley, a last-minute replacement, who had to learn the title role (easily as long as either Siegfried) in two and a half weeks — for the acres of ungrateful declamatory singing they were obliged to hurl out at Fisher Hall all evening. That they could pace themselves and did not run out of steam is a tremendous tribute to the professionalism of all hands. Donnie Ray Albert may lack the Wagnerian surge and sonorous depths that d’Indy appears to have hoped for in Arfagard, the uncompromising druid priest and prophet, but his sturdy bass-baritone never lost authority. Deanne Meek’s clear mezzo-soprano probably has some sensuous notes somewhere, but she didn’t much display them as the Saracen princess Guilhen, though one would have thought “seductiveness” part of the job description. She, too, deserves points for unflagging industry. Barbara Dever sang the small but distinctive role of Kaito, whom d’Indy calls the goddess of the clouds — but he wrote it and she sang it in the style and intensity of Wagner’s Erda, a part she could obviously handle whenever called upon. Many small roles were ably covered and the Concert Chorale of New York were especially virtuosic, with the only really lyric singing of the occasion.

John Yohalem

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