A lost opera from the most powerful musician you’ve never heard of: La ville morte reviewed

14 March 2020

9:00 AM

14 March 2020

9:00 AM

La ville morte

Gothenburg Opera, Sweden


Linbury Theatre, in rep until 14 March

Who was the most influential figure in 20th-century classical music? Stravinsky? Pierre Boulez? What about Bernstein or Britten? John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen? Powerful public figures all. But there’s a case to be made for a very different kind of character — less king than kingmaker, a musical éminence grise.With a Who’s Who of pupils that included Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Astor Piazzolla, Philip Glass, John Eliot Gardiner and Daniel Barenboim, Nadia Boulanger is the most powerful musician you’ve never heard of, ‘the most important teacher since Socrates’, as one composer only partly joked.

Photographs show us a stern, spectacled, almost invariably elderly figure. Neatly coiffed and tailored, she could be your French grandmother, except for the eminent men who crowd round her, listening with close attention, respect bordering on reverence.

Despite some early success as a composer, including second prize in the all-important Prix de Rome, Boulanger quickly put ambitions of creating her own music aside. Later in life she refused to discuss her works, and it’s only recently that her small catalogue has begun to resurface. Looking into it feels like stealing a glance at your headmistress’s own school report, glimpsing the insecure, unformed young woman behind the inscrutable grande dame.

Composed in collaboration with her mentor Raoul Pugno, the opera La ville morte is Boulanger’s biggest surviving work — almost. The outbreak of the first world war derailed the première, and the complete set of parts was subsequently bombed, leaving only sketches, drafts and a piano-and-voice score. Reconstructed by Mauro Bonifacio, the opera is now performable, and this week Sweden’s Gothenburg Opera became only the second company ever to stage it.

Set to a libretto by Gabriele D’Annunzio, La ville morte is a surprisingly heady affair — Merchant Ivory with added incest. Set in the ruins of Mycenae, it traces the currents of illicit desire between archaeologists Léonard and Alexandre, Alexandre’s blind wife Anne and Léonard’s sister Hebé. The quartet configures and reconfigures itself until a final erotic pairing — between brother and sister — that is so dangerous that murder is the only possible climax.

D’Annunzio’s text is pungently purple — all orange groves and glittering seas, barely suppressed desires and gift-wrapped metaphors. But if there’s more than a hint of Pre-Raphaelite kitsch about the score’s own skeins of harp, celesta and strings, glinting with self-consciously exotic modal harmonies, it’s deliciously, sumptuously carried off. These are the jewel tones of Burne-Jones, not the pallid sweetness of Leighton.

There’s no getting away from the fact that it sounds a lot like Debussy. Pelléas et Mélisande casts a shadow over not just a score but a story that shares too much with La ville morte to be coincidental. But where Debussy’s Allemonde is shadowy, watery cool, Boulanger’s world blazes hot. Red dust swirls in eddies of woodwind; strings create a heat-haze miasma around vocal lines that follow the contours of speech; a prayer to Elijah finds the chorus parched, bleached of texture, sharing a single phrase as they plead for water.

This one-off performance, cleverly concert-staged by Mia Nerenius with the aid of projections, costumes, and deft lighting by Niklas Elfvengren, caught the opera’s unfashionable melodrama, its gawky intensity and over-the-top musical emotions, as well as its sometimes indecent beauty. Strauss and Ravel collide in Hebé’s rapturous lines, sung here by soprano Katarina Karneus, in full vocal bloom — pink and cream against the deeper flush of mezzo Matilda Paulsson’s Anne. The writing for the men is less interesting, but Markus Pettersson made all he could of Léonard’s punishing high, sustainedly earnest music.

La ville morte is no masterpiece. Its drama is too static, its pace too constant, its musical emotions overwritten. It’s an operatic B-movie, a sexy skeleton in Boulanger’s severely tailored closet that’ll transform the way you see history’s sternest pedagogue. If Wexford or another enterprising festival ever gives it a full staging I’ll be first in line to swoon to it again.

There’s less swooning at the Royal Opera House this week, where the London Handel Festival has teamed up for the second year with the company’s Jette Parker Young Artists. Last year’s Berenice was a pocket-sized delight, but this Susannais rather more strenuous. The composer’s oratorios can stage brilliantly, but Handel’s take on the Bible’s very own #MeToo story of Susanna and the Elders gains nothing from a haphazard update to a cult in a 1960s Cornish fishing village.

And why programme Handel when your current crop of Young Artists would clearly rather be singing Verdi? There are some superb voices and some astonishingly unidiomatic singing here. It’s a real waste of countertenor Patrick Terry — an outstanding Joacim, coaxing impossible sweetness from Handel’s agile melodies — and bass-baritone Michael Mofidian (Chelsias), who has constantly stolen the spotlight in every supporting role the Royal Opera has cast him in and deserves something meatier. Patrick Milne conducts a rather limp London Handel Orchestra, and the effect of this topical parable is lacklustre rather than stirring.

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