L’Opéra Français de New York

Yves Abel, Artistic Director and Conductor
Alice Tully Hall
5 January, 2001

La Princesse jaune
Opéra-comique in one act
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Libretto by Louis Gallet

First performance: Opéra-Comique, Paris, June 12. 1872

Léna, a young Dutch woman who paints:
Kornélis, a young Dutch man, a doctor:
    Cheryl Hickman
    Gerard Powers
The home of Léna’s parents, in Holland

* * * * *

Opéra-comique in one act
Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
after Alfred de Musset’s poem, Namouna
First performance: Opéra-Comique, Paris, May 22. 1872

Haroun, an Egyptian playboy:
Splendiano, Haroun’s tutor:
Djamileh, a slave girl, Haroun’s mistress:
    Gerard Powers
    Adam Klein
    Dolora Zajick
Haroun’s palace, Cairo

This was the first time I attended a presentation by this group, and I must say that I was most impressed with the quality of the orchestra, of the singers, and of the conductor. But I had heard Abel conduct Les Contes d'Hoffmann at the Metropolitan Opera last season, and expressed my pleasure at hearing a conductor who knows how to conduct French music (see review of Hoffmann in this section). Furthermore, I had read about Djamileh and its source, Alfred de Musset's long poem, Namouna, while doing research for my M.A. thesis, a thousand years ago, and had come across references to La Princesse jaune in other research, and wanted to at least hear them before shuffling off this mortal coil. So now I have, and I will discuss them shortly.

Both pieces were performed concert-style, with singers downstage in chairs, rising when they had something to sing, sitting down when they were finished. The chorus in La Princesse jaune was omitted. Although no reason was given, it seems that all they had to do was sing a French transliteration of some Japanese text to set the mood. Although the text appeared in the libretto provided with the program booklet, no translation of it was made. It is possible that it is merely syllables made up by librettist Gallet to sound like what he thought Japanese sounded like. This practice was not unknown in operettas of the late nineteenth century, despite its political incorrectness today. There is much in both these works, especially in their male protagonists, that is politically (and socially) unacceptable today.

Léna and Kornélis are a young Dutch couple soon to wed. She is a painter who decorates porcelain and he is an M. D. They are living in the home of her parents when he suddenly becomes obsessed with a picture of a Japanese princess, writing her love poetry. He even takes drugs to "visit" Japan in his mind. This upsets Léna who is almost ready to call the whole thing off. But he comes to his senses just in time, and admits that she is the one he really loves.
Cheryl Hickman who, to me, sounds like a dramatic soprano in the making, was perfectly fine as Léna. A native of Newfoundland, she studied at the University of Toronto and The Juilliard School. In addition to appearing as the female chorus in Britten's Rape of Lucretia and the witch in Hansel and Gretel with the Canadian Opera Company, she has sung Verdi's Desdemona in Florida, and is making her New York City Opera début this spring as Mary in The Ballad of Baby Doe.

Djamileh opens on an erotic note, with the chorus singing of the setting sun which invites a woman to remove her veils while the appearance of the first star invites our soul to love. Alone, Haroun sings of seeing snow-white bodies floating in the pale perfumed smoke rising toward the setting sun, their "exquisite shapes gathering together at random in the golden dust." His tutor, Splendiano, enters and attempts to get him to change his practice of taking a different slave girl as his mistress every month, and freeing her with generous gifts. Haroun does this, he sings, because his soul is a desert, a wasteland. Describing Djamileh as beautiful and loving, the tutor suggests that she might awaken love in his master. Haroun replies that he is only excited by the unknown, the novel, the next girl who will keep him company for a month before being freed. He suggests that the tutor, who secretly desires the slave girl take her and arrange for a new slave to be sent to him. Splendiano is very excited.

At this point Djamileh enters, looking forlorn: she knows that she must leave that evening and does not wish to because she has fallen in love with her master. Meanwhile, Splendiano has found her replacement. She convinces him to let her go to Haroun in disguise. Although disappointed because he will not have Djamilah., the tutor is hoping she makes the master aware of love. She does, stays with Haroun and everyone lives happily ever after.

Performing both heroes, Gerard Powers acquitted himself well. A member of the New York City Opera, he is singing Rodolfo and Alfredo there this season. Internationally, he has sung Ismaele (Nabucco), Offenbach's Hoffmann, Don José, Fenton, and the Duke (Rigoletto).

Adam Smith sang at the Metropolitan Opera as a child in The Magic Flute and Pelléas et Mélisande. More recently, he has sung a wide variety of roles in regional opera companies, including Puccini's Des Grieux, Don José, Siegmund in Act I of Die Walküre, Bacchus, (Ariadne auf Naxos) and Grimoaldo (Rodelinda). Personally, I felt his voice had a "covered" quality, almost baritonal. Perhaps he will further mature into a dramatic tenor. Considering the size of his voice right now, however, that is hard to conceive. I wish him the best.

One thing that bothered me about both tenors was their French pronunciation. They tended to sing with the gutteral R rather than the flipped R which is more normal in singing. I am told that most French singers use the gutteral R. When I lived in France and attended opera there, I do not remember any singers using the gutteral R. I first heard it recently from, Roberto Alagna in a Metropolitan Opera Roméo et Juliette. I did not like it at all, but that could be because I am unused to it, and have been told that the correct way to sing classical French songs and opera is with the flipped R. Otherwise, their French pronunciation was perfectly acceptable. I wonder, however, if their gutteral R's were done at the suggestion of the Maestro Abel?

This brings us to the evening's star, Dolora Zajick. She sang and acted beautifully, although I would say she was somewhat underparted. A fine artist, she never allowed her huge voice to overpower her colleagues, and was truly a part of the ensemble. Djamileh is a role easily sung by just about any mezzo with good French pronunciation, so why hire Zajick? Don't get me wrong: I am very glad to have heard her sing that evening. Hers was definitely the strongest voice and most accomplished performance. I wonder if she was hired as a drawing card? Despite the cold and nasty weather, although the house was not packed, the performance was very well attended.

What did I think of the music?  Let's put it this way:  if Saint-Saëns and Bizet had left behind only these two operas along with their other works, they would not be known as composers of opera. While the music fell nicely on the ear, it was not ear candy, nor was it memorable. One did not leave the theatre humming any of the arias, or even the overtures. When asked by an orchestra member of my acquaintance what I thought of the evening, I praised the performances, the conductor, the orchestra and the singers. As far as the music was concerned, I said I thought it was a perfect waste of time. She was surprised, bringing up the Wagnerian qualities by which the 19th century critics insulted them. I then softened my statement to say that I could not remember any of the melodies right after the performance, not could I hear anything that sounded remotely Wagnerian during it.

I'm glad I went, if only to hear a finely conducted orchestra, some forgettable French music, some very fine voices, and to have my curiosity satisfied. In this case, however, once was enough.

-- Howard of Griswold Hall

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2001 Howard Levin

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