Performance Sunday, January 27, 2013 | 8 PM

Renée Fleming
Susan Graham
Bradley Moore

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Their pairing in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier in 2000 and 2009 at the Metropolitan Opera is now a celebrated part of opera lore; since then, Renée Fleming and Susan Graham have teamed up time and again, creating sparks together in recordings and on the concert stage. Now these all-American divas bring their unparalleled talents to Carnegie Hall for an unforgettable night of song.
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The Program

"Pastorale"; "Viens! une flûte invisible"; "El desdichado"

Camille Saint-Saëns was the most facile and prolific of composers. "I live in music like a fish in water," he once said, and he also commented that he produced music "as an apple tree produces apples." A child prodigy at the piano, by his early teens he was also showing a remarkably sophisticated ability in song writing. Berlioz, always skilled in the mot juste, said of him: "He knows everything, but lacks inexperience."

Saint-Saëns was not drawn to very serious verse, nor did he probe deeply below the surface of the words. Fritts Noske describes his strengths thus: "Mobility of rhythm, sonority of harmony, variety of movement, and melody closely tied to the cadence of the words, all contribute to make the game—for basically it is nothing but a game-witty and enthralling."

The first two duets we hear date from 1855, when the composer was only 20. Both depict a classical pastoral idyll, so beloved in French literature and painting. Set to words written in the early-18th century by André Cardinal Destouches, "Pastorale" is a gently syncopated song that exudes freshness and charm. In "Viens! une flûte invisible," using verse by Saint-Saëns's favorite writer Victor Hugo, two lovers pledge eternal love to the swaying siciliano rhythm commonly used for pastoral music.

Written by a much more mature Saint-Saëns in 1871 to an anonymous Spanish verse, "El desdichado" ("The Unhappy One") is a more complex and realistic song, taking a playfully cynical view of lovers' sighs and raptures and condemning romantic love as mere "drunkenness," best avoided. Set to a dashing bolero rhythm, it is a showcase for the singers' coloratura and tight ensemble.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"Puisqu'ici-bas," Op. 10, No. 1; "Pleurs d'or," Op. 72; Pavane in F-sharp Minor, Op. 50; "Tarentelle," Op. 10, No. 2

No other composer shaped and enriched the French song tradition more skillfully than Gabriel Fauré, who composed some 100 mélodies over the course of his long career, from "Le papillon et la fleur," composed when he was 16 in 1861, to the cycle L'horizon chimérique of 1921, when he was 76. Beginning with songs of lush lyricism like the three duets we hear tonight, he progressively refined and pared his approach to songwriting until by his last collections—everything subordinated to the subtlest, most perfect declamation of the word and its emotional weight.

As a young man, Fauré was accepted into the brilliant salon of the legendary singer-actress Pauline Viardot and fell in love with her daughter, Marianne. For five years, the composer paid court; finally in 1877, she accepted his proposal of marriage, but then three months later broke off the engagement. Both "Puisqu'ici-bas" and "Tarantelle" were written during this period (1873) for Marianne to sing with her sister Claudine. In "Puisqu'ici-bas," the words by Victor Hugo provided a very personal and reassuring message from the composer to his intended. The graceful melody is traded back and forth between the two singers, then melded together in close harmonies.

Despite the refinement of his music, Fauré was a passionate man, and his ardor may have frightened away the reserved Marianne. That quality blazes forth in "Tarantelle," which is set to the intense leaping rhythms of the eponymous Neapolitan dance. This is a virtuoso duet that requires considerable technical and musical agility from both singers.

Dating from 1896, "Pleurs d'or" was inspired by a later love affair: the now-married Fauré's romance with Emma Bardac, who would later become Debussy's second wife. It was she who urged Fauré to read Albert Samain's collection Au jardin de l'infante (In the Infanta's Garden), from which this verse is drawn. As pianist Graham Johnson writes, "There is a luxurious sensuality to this music: The entwined vocal lines swoon as if responding to a caress."

We also hear Fauré's famous Pavane of 1886, arranged for piano and two voices using the text by Robert de Montesquiou-Fezenzac for its choral-orchestral version: a poem of elegantly artificial courtship in the fête galante style, which we encounter again in the Debussy and Hahn songs. This exquisite music is based on the stately, slow-tempo 16th-century court dance named for the Italian city of Padua.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"Clair de lune"; "Mandoline"; "Beau soir"

The two songs by Claude Debussy that Ms. Fleming sings come from the beginning of his career, when he was still a restless and rebellious student at the Paris Conservatoire. During these years, he had begun to earn money as an accompanist for singers. In 1880, he became captivated by a beautiful amateur soprano Marie-Blanche Vasnier, the wife of a well-to-do bureaucrat. Mme. Vasnier's clear and agile voice prompted a flood of songwriting, and "Mandoline" is one of the songs Debussy dedicated to her.

Set to a poem by Debussy's friend Paul Bourget, "Beau soir" may actually have been written as early as 1878. Beautiful and conventional in text and musical treatment, it shows little of Debussy's original voice in its regular rhythms and standard arpeggiated accompaniment. But already with "Mandoline" of 1882, the real Debussy has emerged in a wonderfully spontaneous and rhythmically flexible treatment of a poem from Paul Verlaine's 1869 set Fêtes galantes. Inspired by Watteau's paintings, these poems conjured the idle and frivolous world of 18th-century aristocrats absorbed in witty gossip and changing love alliances. Opening and closing with a plink, the piano imitates the mandolin throughout. (Later in the program, we hear this same poem in Reynaldo Hahn's setting.)

Debussy would never have imagined his brief piano piece "Clair de lune" would become his most popular work-indeed one of the most popular works in all classical music. It was the third piece in his keyboard set Suite bergamasque of 1890, and he did not get around to publishing that suite until 1905 after the success of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Today, we think of it as the ideal nocturne, its gentle melody and wash of soft colors enchanting our ears.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation 


"Les filles de Cadix"; "Duo des fleurs" from Lakmé

Even Tchaikovsky—that master of ballet—was deeply impressed by the brilliant scores Léo Delibes wrote for the classic ballets Coppélia and Sylvia. With his gift for creating light, graceful, and often exotically colorful music, Delibes was also a master of operetta. But, like Offenbach, he longed to write something more worthy, and that became his gorgeous opera of forbidden love set in the British Raj, Lakmé (1883).

This taste for exoticism can also be found in the most popular of his small output of songs, "Les filles de Cadix," set to a sly and taunting verse by Alfred de Musset. Using the traditional rhythm of the Spanish bolero, this is a showpiece for both the soprano voice and the piano, conjuring the proud flamenco style of Andalusia.

At the end of the program, we return to Delibes for the haunting "Duo des fleurs" from Act I of Lakmé. Daughter of a fiercely partisan Hindu priest, the beautiful Lakmé and her servant Mallika sing this duet full of fragrant imagery as they leave the temple for a bath at the river side; on her return, she will meet Gérald, the British officer with whom she falls in love and whose departure from India will bring about her death. No one has written music that more sensuously intertwines two women's voices than this.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation 

"Le rossignol des lilas"; "Infidélité"; "Fêtes galantes"; "Le printemps"

Though Reynaldo Hahn was born in Caracas to a Venezuelan mother and a German father, he became as thoroughly French as any musician of his era. As Brian Zeger, writes, "He was a constant presence in the salons of Parisian society where he would entertain, accompanying himself at the piano, frequently with a cigarette dangling from his lips." He was a master songwriter, bringing to his work his own skills as a singer, as well as a connoisseur of literature. In 1894, he met Marcel Proust, who became his most intimate friend for nearly 30 years and guided his literary tastes.

A child prodigy, Hahn began writing songs of remarkable craftsmanship and sophistication at the age of 13. He was particularly captivated by the poetry of Paul Verlaine, and that poet in turn reportedly wept upon hearing Hahn's exquisite settings of his verse. The poetry always reigned supreme in Hahn's songs, the words set with crystalline clarity and never overpowered by the accompaniment.

"Le rossignol des lilas" is an ode to spring of ravishing, yet subtle lyricism with perfect declamation of the words, gracefully and tactfully supported by the piano. Set to verse by the great Théophile Gautier, "Infidélité" is a song of reminiscence told with hushed restraint. The singer's last line, given even more prominence by being unaccompanied, reveals the reason for the title. An ecstatic piano part conveys the joy of spring's arrival in "Le printemps." "Fêtes galantes" sets the same text used by Debussy in "Mandoline"; Hahn's setting is less casual, more calculated and polished. Wonderful touches are the languidly downward-sliding phrases of the third verse with their sly upward flips, as well as the song's witty last line. All is unified by the high tinkling part in the pianist's right hand, imitating the mandolin.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation 

"La mort d'Ophélie," Op. 18, No. 2

In 1827, Hector Berlioz attended performances in Paris by a visiting English dramatic troupe of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. Though he understood little of the English words, he fell instantly in love with Shakespeare—and more tangibly with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who played the roles of Ophelia and Juliet. His mad pursuit of her culminated in their marriage in 1833: a sad case of a romantic dream being crushed by day-to-day reality. His passion for Shakespeare, however, fared considerably better, and both these plays generated striking musical works.

Berlioz's close friend and sometime financial backer Ernest Legouvé shared the composer's love for Shakespeare and created a poem that was a very close paraphrase of Queen Gertrude's speech in Act V of Hamlet, describing Ophelia's death by drowning after she has been driven mad by Hamlet's rejection and his murder of her father. In 1842, Berlioz turned the poem into a ballade for soprano and piano, and in 1848 expanded it into an orchestral work with two-part women's chorus. Ms. Fleming and Ms. Graham sing a duo version of this later arrangement. In 1849, "La mort d'Ophélie" became the second piece in Berlioz's compilation Tristia (Sad Pieces), which also contains an orchestral funeral march for the close of Hamlet.

"Ophélie" is set in the buoyant 6/8 meter of a barcarolle, and the pianist's left hand also imitates the sound of the brook with constantly rippling 16th notes. Each of the freely varied strophes ends in a haunting wordless refrain of wailing appoggiatures, which makes a particularly magical effect when the two voices slide against each other after the first and final verses.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation  

"Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche" from Les p'tites Michu              

André Messager was one of the most prominent and versatile musicians at the turn of the 20th century. A pupil of Saint-Saëns and Fauré, he became equally renowned as a pianist, conductor, opera administrator, and composer. It was he who encouraged Debussy to keep writing Pelléas et Mélisande and conducted its 1902 premiere in Paris. He became manager of both the Opéra-Comique and London's Royal Opera, Covent Garden, yet he was most successful as a composer of operettas, both of the classical French variety and in the more modern style of the 1920s.

In 1897, he wrote one of his most charming works: Les p'tites Michu (The Little Michus). Its story by Albert Vanloo and Georges Duval is a crazy concoction that bears a resemblance to the plots of Gilbert and Sullivan. In 1793, the wife of the Marquis des Ifs dies in childbirth, and her husband, on the run from the revolutionary soldiers, deposits the baby girl with the shopkeeper M. Michu, who also has a little girl born at the same time. Soon after, M. Michu is bathing the two children; upon taking them out of the bath, he can't remember which is which! The two girls grow up believing they are twins. In the giddy waltz "Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche," the two, now of marriageable age, introduce themselves and proclaim their absolute unity—and penchant for mischief.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation   

Barcarolle, from Les contes d'Hoffmann

Jacques Offenbach was an earlier master of the French operetta who longed to create something more serious and substantial. He devoted the final years of his life to writing his chef d'oeuvre, Les contes d'Hoffmann, based on the stories of the German Romantic E. T. A. Hoffmann as cobbled together by librettist Jules Barbier. With the score not quite finished, Offenbach died in October 1880, four months before Hoffmann was premiered in a truncated version, completed by Ernest Guiraud at the Opéra-Comique.

Ms. Fleming and Ms. Graham sing the opera's most famous number: the languidly lovely duet Barcarolle ("Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour"), which is performed by Hoffmann's companion Nicklausse and the courtesan Giulietta at the beginning of Act III. Since this act is set in Venice, it is a lilting barcarolle of music to be performed on the water.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation    

Perspectives: Renée Fleming
Funding for the Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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