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The Met Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting in concert

A Shakespeare-inspired gala ends the season on a high, with the Met Orchestra under its hugely dynamic Music Director and a stellar line-up of vocal soloists.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet

Like many of Tchaikovsky’s works, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture has an autobiographical subtext: the composer’s infatuation – his first and apparently only genuinely romantic heterosexual relationship – with a Belgian soprano named Désirée Artôt in the fall and winter of 1869. Although the 29-year-old composer avowed that he was ‘enraptured’ by Artôt’s ‘gestures and the gracefulness of her movements and her posture,’ the realisation that either he or she would have to make a painful career sacrifice soon put paid to thoughts of marriage. In the aftermath of their short-lived affair, Tchaikovsky transferred his gaze to Shakespeare’s fictional couple.

The idea originated with his composer friend Mily Balakirev, fresh from the completion of his own ‘oriental fantasy’ for piano, Islamey. Balakirev not only suggested the concert overture format but provided a detailed musical outline for the piece. Unlike Berlioz’s choral-symphonic Roméo et Juliette, Tchaikovsky’s Shakespearean fantasy is purely orchestral, a symphonic poem in which the drama is conjured by the music rather than emanating from an extra-musical programme. Like Liszt’s Hamlet and Dvořák’s Othello, this Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture distils Shakespeare’s play to its dramatic essence: the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers set against the festering blood-feud between the Montagues and Capulets.

If Tchaikovsky’s affair with Artôt lay behind the music he wrote in 1869, his complicated later love life undoubtedly coloured his two subsequent revisions of the score, in 1870 and 1880. The end result was an emotional roller-coaster in free sonata form propelled by the intricate interplay of two contrasting themes, the first violent and sharply syncopated, the second serene and rapturously lyrical. (For good measure, Tchaikovsky added a subsidiary third theme, a series of solemn, hymnlike chords that is usually said to evoke Friar Laurence.) Enhancing the music’s emotive power is the sumptuous orchestration, including a beefed-up brass section and prominent parts for harp and timpani. By the time the work had reached its final form, Tchaikovsky was hatching plans for a full-scale operatic version of Romeo and Juliet. ‘This shall be my definitive work,’ he told his brother Modest. ‘It’s odd how until now I hadn’t seen how I was truly destined to set this drama to music. Nothing could be better suited to my musical character. No kings, no marches, and none of the encumbrances of grand opera – just love, love, love.’ Although the opera remained unfinished, Tchaikovsky recycled music from the Fantasy-Overture in a fragmentary scene that came to light after his death.

© Harry Haskell


Matthew Aucoin Heath (King Lear Sketches)

The heath, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, is the bare, windswept place, devoid of civilisation and human comforts, where Lear, the Fool, and others end up after Lear’s eldest two daughters – to whom he has unwisely bequeathed his kingdom – have systematically stripped him of the last shreds of his authority. It is on the heath that Lear loses touch with reality, or at least with the world of unchecked privilege that he has enjoyed his entire life, and enters a state somewhere between madness and prophecy – a kind of lucid nightmare.

But the heath is more than a mere geographical site; it is the psychological bedrock of the entire play. King Lear expresses a bottomlessly bleak vision of human nature, one in which laws, customs and hierarchies – what we call ‘norms’ in the contemporary world – are a flimsy safeguard against insatiable animal appetites. When Lear lets his guard down for an instant and makes a major decision for sentimental reasons rather than according to the dictates of realpolitik, the wolves that surround him instantly show their fangs.

So, even though my orchestral piece does not directly enact the play’s heath scenes, Heath felt like the only possible title. This play’s inner landscape is a rocky, barren place, one in which every human luxury is ultimately burned away to reveal the hard stone underneath: ‘the thing itself,’ as Lear puts it.

Heath is divided into four sections, played continuously with no break. The first and longest, ‘The Divided Kingdom’, embodies the atmosphere of the play’s first scenes: the uneasy sense of rituals failing to serve their purpose, of political life unravelling into chaos. The second section, ‘The Fool’, is full of darting, quicksilver music inspired by the Fool’s mockery of Lear. The brief third section, ‘I have no way …’, is inspired by the blinded Gloucester’s slow, sad progress across the landscape. And the final movement, ‘With a Dead March’, embodies the accumulated tragedies of the play’s final scenes.

© Matthew Aucoin


Hector Berlioz Selections from Les Troyens

‘For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera, of which I should write both words and music, as I did for L’enfance du Christ. I am resisting the temptation, and I trust I shall continue to resist it to the end.’ So wrote Berlioz in 1854, in the first edition of his Memoirs. Four years later, he added a plaintive footnote: ‘Alas, no! I could not resist. I have just finished the book and music of Les Troyens, an opera in five acts. What is to become of this huge work?’ The fate of Berlioz’s crowning achievement is symptomatic of a composer who was in many ways ahead of his time. The Paris Opéra announced a production of Les Troyens (‘The Trojans’), then strung the composer along for five exasperating years. Finally, in 1863, he read the handwriting on the wall, split the five-hour-long work into two parts, and consoled himself with a staging of the latter, titled Les Troyens à Carthage (‘The Trojans at Carthage’), at Paris’s second-tier opera house, the Opéra-Comique. Part 1, La Prise de Troie (‘The Capture of Troy’), remained unheard until after his death, and not until 1969 did the complete Troyens reach the stage. The 60-year-old Berlioz was so disheartened by his ordeal that he quit composing altogether.

Virgil was a lifelong lodestar for Berlioz. In late middle age, he recalled reading the last book of the Aeneid (in Latin) as a boy and being ‘possessed by the glory of its characters … Is that not a strange and marvellous manifestation of the power of genius? A poet dead thousands of years shakes an artless, ignorant boy to the depths of his soul with a tale handed down across the centuries, and with scenes whose radiance devouring time has been powerless to dim.’ Berlioz’s libretto for Les Troyens is as artfully constructed, and as authentically Virgilian, as his music.

Of the three excerpts on tonight’s programme, the rousing aria ‘Chers Tyriens’ (‘Dear Tyrians’) introduces Dido, the legendary Queen of Carthage who led her subjects from the Phoenician city-state of Tyre to establish a new colony in North Africa ‘dedicated to the works of peace’. Dido’s fateful dalliance with the Trojan hero Aeneas is depicted in the orchestral interlude ‘Chasse royale et orage’ (‘Royal Hunt and Storm’). In pantomimed action that Berlioz annotates in the score, the lovers seek refuge from a torrential squall in a woodland cave, where they consummate their passion wordlessly and unseen. (This erotic tableau was cut after the first performance at the Opéra- Comique, ostensibly because the elaborate set change took too long.) In due course, Aeneas heeds the call of destiny and sails off to found Rome, leaving Dido to sing her brief, eloquently becalmed death-scene aria ‘Adieu, fière cité’ (‘Farewell, proud city’) in delicately poised alexandrine verses.


Giuseppe Verdi Act 4 from Otello

Over the course of Verdi’s long career, his style evolved from the simple, clear-cut structures of such old-fashioned number operas as Ernani and Il trovatore to the complex, seamless idiom of Otello and Falstaff. The latter are widely counted among the most successful of all Shakespearean adaptations for the operatic stage. For this, credit is shared by Verdi’s master librettist and fellow composer Arrigo Boito (1842–1918). Although belonging to very different generations, the two men shared a reverence for the Bard. ‘He is one of my very special poets’, said Verdi, ‘and I have had him in hand since my earliest youth, and I read and re-read him continually’. Both men had tried their hands at turning Shakespeare into opera before, Verdi in his 1847 Macbeth (which he pronounced a ‘fiasco’) and Boito in his 1865 libretto for another composer’s long-forgotten Hamlet. In Otello (1887), the strategy by the now older and wiser Boito was to condense and simplify Shakespeare’s plot while preserving as much as possible of his dramatic structure and language. In cutting the number of speaking/singing roles by almost half, he transformed the complex, enigmatic Iago into a pasteboard villain and the ingénue Desdemona into an autonomous, self-aware heroine – a woman, as the great American musicologist Joseph Kerman once observed, ‘as capable of adultery as she is of passion in the grand manner. Her religiosity, true to this conception, is constant but superficial. And [Puccini’s] Tosca is peeping out from under her petticoats.’

Indeed, the first half of Act 4 is virtually a solo scena for Desdemona, whose ravishingly beautiful elaboration of Shakespeare’s plaintive ‘Willow Song’ (Act 4, scene 3) is followed by an interpolated Ave Maria – a nod, presumably, to Verdi’s Catholic audience – as she recites her bedtime prayers, attended by the loyal Emilia. At this point, poetry veers into melodrama. In a menacing and – in the original production book for the opera – precisely choreographed pantomime (Shakespeare’s Act 5, scene 2), the murderously jealous Otello steals into his sleeping wife’s bedchamber and kisses her awake, while the orchestra plays a tender reminiscence of their passionate love duet in Act 1. Verdi’s unerring sense of musical dramaturgy, and Boito’s skill in compressing Shakespeare’s text, are on full display in the opera’s climactic scene: accusing Desdemona of adultery, the vengeful Moor of Venice first throttles her and then, confronted with proof that Iago’s story of her infidelity is a tissue of lies, stabs himself. Dispensing with Shakespeare’s eloquent speech in his own defence, Otello drags himself to his wife’s corpse, kisses her for the last time, and expires in time-honoured operatic fashion with a breathless sob. Thus ends what Kerman characterises as ‘a drama of love and jealousy that glances forward to the verismo theatre as surely as it peers back to the Elizabethan.’

© Harry Haskell

Programme and performers

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet
Matthew Aucoin Heath (King Lear Sketches)
Hector Berlioz ‘Chers Tyriens’ from Les Troyens
‘Chasse royale et orage’ from Les Troyens
‘Adieu, fière cité’ from Les Troyens

Giuseppe Verdi Act 4 from Otello

The Met Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Joyce DiDonato mezzo-soprano
Angel Blue soprano (Desdemona)
Russell Thomas tenor (Otello)
Deborah Nansteel mezzo-soprano (Emilia)
Errin Duane Brooks tenor (Cassio)
Michael Chioldi baritone (Jago)
Richard Bernstein bass (Lodovico)
Adam Lau bass (Montano)


Artist biographies

Audience in the hall

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