Alto Lemieux provides vocal fireworks—even before the Fourth of July!
By Peter Alexander
The Colorado Music Festival (CMF) opened last night (July 1) with some splash and dash, some exoticism, some vocal fireworks, and a loud, brassy finish. With such ingredients, the audience went away happy.
Conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni chose to begin his very first Festival Orchestra concert as music director—he appeared last year as one of several guest conductors vying for the post he now holds—with a work that ties into his own French-Canadian heritage, Debussy’s La Mer. But as Zeitouni said last week, there is another reason to program La Mer: “because it’s a virtuoso orchestral piece, and it’s my way of showcasing this wonderful orchestra.”
His performance did indeed showcase the players. This was not a lush, Romantic performance of La Mer such as you may have heard before. Zeitouni was more spare in his approach, creating a chamber-music-like sound that revealed every voice in the orchestra. One could hear every individual line, every player in the ensemble, and the players responded with some beautiful playing. This was a transparent ocean, every wave audible—or visible in the listener’s mind.
The performance was also remarkably flexible, with delineating changes of tempo and volume carefully managed. The finale in particular was immaculately controlled and detailed. Zeitouni did not take the easy way of going for big effects; the result was something more subtle, a performance that elicits admiration if not unrestrained exuberance.
Ravel’s Shéhérazade was probably the least familiar work on the program. The score is a set of three imaginative poems based on the Arabian Nights by the composer’s contemporary Tristan Klingsor, performed with colorful orchestral accompaniment. With lines like “I would like to see fine turbans of silk” and “I’d like to see cruel assassins,” the text is a classic expression of Orientalism, the dreamy distortion of Arab and Asian peoples who could not speak for themselves during the age of European colonization.
These Orientalist clichés of the text were in full view, since Timothy Orr of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival was on hand to read the poems before each song. But whether one approves of the texts or no, his dramatic readings greatly enhanced the audience experience.
Ravel’s music beautifully evokes in sound the images of the text. And when one hears it as well performed as it was by Zeitouni, the Festival Orchestra, and the remarkable alto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, one easily forgets that the text was tainted by the Eurocentrism of the 19th- and 20th-century colonial powers. I particularly enjoyed the playing of principal flutist Viviana Cumplido Wilson in the second song, La flûte enchantée (The enchanted flute).
After intermission, Lemieux came into her own with arias from Rossini operas. She showed why she is known and admired in Europe for her fiery performances in dramatic operatic roles. The first two arias she sang, those listed in the program, were taken from two of Rossini’s serious operas, Tancredi and Semiramide. It was good to hear these arias: they are great music taken from serious operas that are not often taken seriously today, and therefore are seldom heard by most audiences.
My only reservation was that these very dramatic pieces, in which Lemieux was clearly seeing the scene before her eyes as she performed, were largely opaque to most listeners, because the program notes opted for an irrelevant paragraph about the composer and his popularity in Beethoven’s and Schubert’s Vienna, rather than including the texts, or even descriptions of the emotions being portrayed by the singer.
Best of all was the final aria, an encore from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian girl in Algiers), which Lemieux introduced with great verve and humor. She had the audience in her hands—and that was before she began to sing! I suspect that for Colorado audiences, she will be one of the great discoveries of the summer at CMF. Her performances were vocally brilliant, dramatically engaging, and filled with personality.
It was an interesting choice to have Orr return to the stage and set the scene for each of the four scenes of Respighi’s tone poem The Pines of Rome, which closed the program. I enjoyed his introductions, but thought: why was he not employed for the Rossini arias?
Respighi’s brilliant music did exactly what it was written to do: bring the audience to their feet. But that is not to say that their enthusiasm was misplaced. Here Romanticism was in full flower, but with no loss of orchestral clarity.
As in past years, CMF has a Festival Orchestra of remarkable quality, and the musicians played with a fullness of sound and balance that made The Pines of Rome everything it is meant to be. Of the many wind solos, one must single out the work of the principal clarinet, Louis DeMartino, who played his long solo in the third section, “The Pines of the Janiculum,” with remarkable beauty, delicacy and control.
The final “Pines of the Appian Way” emerged from near silence, leading to a long and controlled crescendo that never got out of hand but reached Respighi’s great climax near the ideal moment. When the last powerful brass chord died away, the audience jumped to their feet and cheered—more spontaneously than in many of Boulder’s more dutiful standing ovations—and then left happy.
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One parting sour note to the audience: after they were asked to turn all devices off, it was only 5 seconds into the concert that someone’s cell phone jingled in one of the quietest passages of Debussy’s score. I hope the CPR engineers can edit that out of the broadcast—but who in 2015 still doesn’t know to turn their phone OFF, when they have just been reminded?
NOTE: edited for clarity 2 July 2015