Debussy’s String Quartet in G-minor is one of those pieces of music that I will listen to over and over, struck anew by the power that resides within it, its energy and originality and rich textures. The third movement, ever my favorite, seems to impart a secret message, one you must be very still and quiet to hear. It seems to encompass a story, one of love, pain and redemption that afterward haunts you.
I had the opportunity to hear this quartet performed last Saturday at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato had joined the Alexander String Quartet in the world premiere of American composer Jake Heggie’s Camille Claudel: Into the Fire. DiDonato, in case you are unfamiliar with her, was recipient of the 2010 Gramophone “Artist of the Year” award, and has been hailed by the New Yorker as “perhaps the most potent female singer of her generation.” Featured on the cover of December’s Opera News, she’s generated a great deal of well-deserved buzz in the classical music world. To pair her performance with a rendition of the Debussy made for a spectacular night of music.
The program opener, "Venezia," by 19th century composer Reynaldo Hahn, with Heggie at the piano accompanying DiDonato, was delightful, a sumptuous appetizer before the main course. Debussy’s Quartet in G-minor followed, and after intermission came Camille Claudel: Into the Fire. The evening’s performance, satisfying on so many levels, produced two particular moments of haunting transcendence. One, as I’d hoped and anticipated, was the Alexander String Quartet’s rendition of the Debussy, and that oh-so-crucial-to-me third movement. The second was DiDonato’s performance as Camille Claudel, in the song cycle’s final piece, the Epilogue, where the once fiery, exuberant young sculptress had become a subdued, shadow image of her former self.
First, a bit of history on Camille Claudel. Born in 1864, she was an artist, a sculptress of considerable talent. She became Rodin’s student, protégée, lover, but was eventually betrayed by him, then by her family, by the dictates of a society that did not treat female genius sculptresses with favor. In the wake of increasingly unstable mental health, her family had her institutionalized. She never sculpted again, and spent the last 30 years of her life largely in solitude.
Heggie’s composition contains seven movements, each one revolving around one of Claudel’s sculptures and her musings on the day she is to be committed. The exception is the Epilogue, which is based on a photograph taken decades later, Camille with a visitor at the asylum, her old art school friend, Jessie Lipscomb. The text, penned by librettist Gene Scheer, is thoughtful, powerful in its economy, particularly affecting here.
Do you remember our studio in Paris? Everything moving.
Two young women, so many ideas. Look at me now!
Oh, Jessie… Every dream I ever had was of movement.
Touching. Breathing. Reaching. Hovering.
Something always about to change…
A photograph? Just me and you. Yes. I understand. I must be very still.
Thank you for remembering me.
And that’s how it ends.
There stands Joyce DiDonato, as gifted an actress as she is a singer, having morphed into an aging Camille Claudel, left to languish. Spirit broken, bereft of illusions, there is nonetheless the youthful Camille still visible behind the eyes as she tells us in a small voice, “Thank you for remembering me.”
Well, that pretty much broke me up inside, freeing the tears to come galloping to the surface. And how uncannily similar to the feelings the Debussy’s third movement evoked in me, both with their mix of gravity, tenderness, using pauses and breaths as effectively as if they were instruments. The final effect is devastating, unforgettable. It’s what fine art is all about.
Claude Debussy ties in, in more delicious ways. He was a great admirer of Camille Claudel and her work. She’d presented him with a copy of her sculpture, “La Valse,” that he kept on his mantel until his death. La Valse: “the waltz.” One of the seven subjects of the song cycle, and the very feeling and image Heggie’s composition conjures up and carries through.
I loved the 1988 film Camille Claudel, actress Isabelle Adjani’s performance and mesmerizing blue eyes, but I must say that I will remember Claudel even more clearly now, after hearing this composition, watching this performance.
Thank you for remembering me.
Thank you, Jake and Gene and Joyce and Camille and Claude and members of the Alexander String Quartet, for reminding us of the art and artists worth remembering.
© 2012 Terez Rose
More entries: December 2011
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