BÈrÈnice, Carnegie Hall

He was a virtuoso of his particular instrument: the later romantic
orchestra in all its excess of size and sonority and varieties of color, and
like many a virtuoso he tended to ignore other aspects of the compositions he
worked on. When one is composing an opera, after all, one wants a clear story
or at least clearly “musicable” (as Verdi put it) situations, and
to have the music emerge from those situations and characters. Magnard’s
BÈrÈnice features long, powerful lead parts with rich orchestral
accompaniment but very little of all its music (some three hours’ worth)
is effectively theatrical or illuminates the famous play from which he drew his

In the days when classical culture meant something, the romance of Emperor
Titus and Queen BÈrÈnice was the very type of Noble Renunciation: Duty before
Love. The lovers met when Titus commanded the Roman army besieging Jerusalem in
69 A.D.; BÈrÈnice and her brother, Herod Agrippa II, took the Roman side
against the Jewish rebels. When the war was over and the Second Temple
destroyed, BÈrÈnice followed Titus to Rome, where his father, Vespasian, had
become emperor. For nearly ten years, older woman and younger man were the talk
of Roman society—a Rome that had not forgotten Marc Antony and his loss
of self-control, of empire, of life on account of another oriental queen. When
Titus succeeded his father, he felt it to be his duty to send BÈrÈnice away.
This tragedy without bloodshed challenged Jean Racine, who made a drama out of
the situation by adding a third character, a great friend of Titus who (unknown
to the others) is also in love with BÈrÈnice. All three, as Dudley Moore would
put it, bemoan and bemoan and bemoan—and then separate for good. It is
exquisite but, at five acts, a bit much for modern audiences. (Red Bull
Theater, which specializes in Jacobean drama, gave a delicious staged reading
of Racine’s play last winter.) Metastasio’s libretto on noble
Titus, familiar from Mozart’s setting, begins on the day of
BÈrÈnice’s exile from Rome, therefore omitting her as a character.
Magnard omitted the friend and reduced his cast to four, so that his hero and
heroine would each have someone to argue with between love duets or
recrimination duets with one another.

This was presented at Carnegie Hall by the American Symphony Orchestra led
by Leon Botstein, who has a sweet tooth for neglected music, especially late
romantic scores of more grandiloquence than substance (Le Roi Arthus,
anybody? or Ariane et Barbe-Bleu? or Fervaal?), but who has
rendered great services to New York opera-lovers by his explorations of obscure
repertory (The Wreckers! Die Ferne Klang! Le Roi
! or Die Liebe der Dan‰e—which last, by the way,
will be his staged offering at Bard this summer). From one hearing, one is
inclined to place BÈrÈnice in the former group, of worthy technical
exercises low on appeal to those who like drama with their k¸nst.

Enriching a full afternoon of music, however, was an exceptional cast of
four singers worthily sinking their teeth into Magnard’s Wagnerian vocal
lines. Michaela Martens, in the title role, calls herself a mezzo soprano. She
has a voice that hovers between soprano and mezzo, if anything brighter and
fuller on top than bottom, and might evolve to dramatic soprano heights in
time. The Met has regularly miscast her in the tiny role of Alisa in Lucia
di Lammermoor
—where she not only outsings whoever the Lucia may be
but, during the sextet, the entire remainder of the cast plus the chorus. She
has been winning praise from Chicago to Graz in the arduous role of the Amme in
Die Frau ohne Schatten—which, the Met being the Met, probably
means she will be assigned Flora Bervoix there next season (Violettas,
beware!), when a voice like this deserves Ortrud or Waltraute if not Didon. At
Carnegie Hall, she demonstrated that she can indeed sing softly, though
clearly, when required, murmuring of love or sinking into recriminations, but
it is the fierce, brassy color and tireless, unwavering solidity of
Martens’ voice that Wagnerians will find exciting. Margaret Lattimore
gave a distinguished performance as Lia, BÈrÈnice’s confidante.

Brian Mulligan, an effective Prometheus in the Los Angeles performances of
Die Vˆgel, sang Titus. He is a baritone but, just as Magnard pushed
BÈrÈnice’s mezzo soprano limits, he pushed Titus to the top of a
baritone’s comfort level; some of those present thought he must be a
tenor. That he managed this music with so little audible discomfort was most
impressive; on the other hand, his French diction was atrocious and calls for
some heavy coaching if he considers other roles in that language. Bass Gregory
Reinhart, as Mucien, the Voice of Duty (as it were), was sonorous, thrilling
and a little scary—in a good way.

The Collegiate Chorale had very little to do but provide scenic
“color” to scenes of the luxurious imperial court, rioting mobs and
cheerful sailors. The ASO demonstrated its familiar aptitude for this sort of
score, its swift changes of tempo, its tonal painting of scenes that all added
up to a demonstration of technique without compositorial inspiration. Could one
request Mr. Botstein to give us more Schreker or Zemlinsky or Smyth and skip
the French dilettantes in the future? Or how about Jan·ček’s
Osud, which he once presented at Bard but which has never been
performed in New York? With the same composer’s Excursions of Mr.
, that would make a double bill of most uncommon interest.

John Yohalem

Click here for program notes relating to this production.

image_description=AlbÈric Magnard: BÈrÈnice
product_title=AlbÈric Magnard: BÈrÈnice
product_by=BÈrÈnice: Michaela Martens; Lia: Margaret Lattimore; Titus: Brian Mulligan; Mucien: Gregory Reinhart. American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein. At Carnegie Hall. Performance of January 30.