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Albéric Magnard: Bérénice
02 Feb 2011

Bérénice, Carnegie Hall

Albéric Magnard, inspired to abandon the law for music by a visit to Bayreuth in 1886, was wealthy enough to ignore the public and go off on his own to compose.

Albéric Magnard: Bérénice

Bérénice: Michaela Martens; Lia: Margaret Lattimore; Titus: Brian Mulligan; Mucien: Gregory Reinhart. American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein. At Carnegie Hall. Performance of January 30.


He was a virtuoso of his particular instrument: the later romantic orchestra in all its excess of size and sonority and varieties of color, and like many a virtuoso he tended to ignore other aspects of the compositions he worked on. When one is composing an opera, after all, one wants a clear story or at least clearly “musicable” (as Verdi put it) situations, and to have the music emerge from those situations and characters. Magnard’s Bérénice features long, powerful lead parts with rich orchestral accompaniment but very little of all its music (some three hours’ worth) is effectively theatrical or illuminates the famous play from which he drew his libretto.

In the days when classical culture meant something, the romance of Emperor Titus and Queen Bérénice was the very type of Noble Renunciation: Duty before Love. The lovers met when Titus commanded the Roman army besieging Jerusalem in 69 A.D.; Bérénice and her brother, Herod Agrippa II, took the Roman side against the Jewish rebels. When the war was over and the Second Temple destroyed, Bérénice followed Titus to Rome, where his father, Vespasian, had become emperor. For nearly ten years, older woman and younger man were the talk of Roman society—a Rome that had not forgotten Marc Antony and his loss of self-control, of empire, of life on account of another oriental queen. When Titus succeeded his father, he felt it to be his duty to send Bérénice away. This tragedy without bloodshed challenged Jean Racine, who made a drama out of the situation by adding a third character, a great friend of Titus who (unknown to the others) is also in love with Bérénice. All three, as Dudley Moore would put it, bemoan and bemoan and bemoan—and then separate for good. It is exquisite but, at five acts, a bit much for modern audiences. (Red Bull Theater, which specializes in Jacobean drama, gave a delicious staged reading of Racine’s play last winter.) Metastasio’s libretto on noble Titus, familiar from Mozart’s setting, begins on the day of Bérénice’s exile from Rome, therefore omitting her as a character. Magnard omitted the friend and reduced his cast to four, so that his hero and heroine would each have someone to argue with between love duets or recrimination duets with one another.

This was presented at Carnegie Hall by the American Symphony Orchestra led by Leon Botstein, who has a sweet tooth for neglected music, especially late romantic scores of more grandiloquence than substance (Le Roi Arthus, anybody? or Ariane et Barbe-Bleu? or Fervaal?), but who has rendered great services to New York opera-lovers by his explorations of obscure repertory (The Wreckers! Die Ferne Klang! Le Roi d’Ys! or Die Liebe der Danäe—which last, by the way, will be his staged offering at Bard this summer). From one hearing, one is inclined to place Bérénice in the former group, of worthy technical exercises low on appeal to those who like drama with their künst.

Enriching a full afternoon of music, however, was an exceptional cast of four singers worthily sinking their teeth into Magnard’s Wagnerian vocal lines. Michaela Martens, in the title role, calls herself a mezzo soprano. She has a voice that hovers between soprano and mezzo, if anything brighter and fuller on top than bottom, and might evolve to dramatic soprano heights in time. The Met has regularly miscast her in the tiny role of Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor—where she not only outsings whoever the Lucia may be but, during the sextet, the entire remainder of the cast plus the chorus. She has been winning praise from Chicago to Graz in the arduous role of the Amme in Die Frau ohne Schatten—which, the Met being the Met, probably means she will be assigned Flora Bervoix there next season (Violettas, beware!), when a voice like this deserves Ortrud or Waltraute if not Didon. At Carnegie Hall, she demonstrated that she can indeed sing softly, though clearly, when required, murmuring of love or sinking into recriminations, but it is the fierce, brassy color and tireless, unwavering solidity of Martens’ voice that Wagnerians will find exciting. Margaret Lattimore gave a distinguished performance as Lia, Bérénice’s confidante.

Brian Mulligan, an effective Prometheus in the Los Angeles performances of Die Vögel, sang Titus. He is a baritone but, just as Magnard pushed Bérénice’s mezzo soprano limits, he pushed Titus to the top of a baritone’s comfort level; some of those present thought he must be a tenor. That he managed this music with so little audible discomfort was most impressive; on the other hand, his French diction was atrocious and calls for some heavy coaching if he considers other roles in that language. Bass Gregory Reinhart, as Mucien, the Voice of Duty (as it were), was sonorous, thrilling and a little scary—in a good way.

The Collegiate Chorale had very little to do but provide scenic “color” to scenes of the luxurious imperial court, rioting mobs and cheerful sailors. The ASO demonstrated its familiar aptitude for this sort of score, its swift changes of tempo, its tonal painting of scenes that all added up to a demonstration of technique without compositorial inspiration. Could one request Mr. Botstein to give us more Schreker or Zemlinsky or Smyth and skip the French dilettantes in the future? Or how about Janáček’s Osud, which he once presented at Bard but which has never been performed in New York? With the same composer’s Excursions of Mr. Brouček, that would make a double bill of most uncommon interest.

John Yohalem

Click here for program notes relating to this production.

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