The American Symphony Orchestra present’s Schmidt’s “Notre Dame”

In what was claimed to most likely be the piece's first professional presentation on a "major stage" in the United States (Carnegie Hall), the American Symphony Orchestra presented a concert performance of Franz Schmidt's opera, "Notre Dame," on Sunday afternoon.  Leon Botstein conducted a very fine cast of Lori Guilbeau (Esmeralda), Stephen Powell (Archdeacon of Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris), Burak Bilgili (Quasimodo), Corey Bix (Phoebus), Robert Chafin (Gringoire), David Pershall (a fellow officer to Phoebus), and Tami Petty (innkeeper), with the Collegiate Chorale Singers.

"Notre Dame" was apparently a bit of a hit when premiered in Vienna in 1914, and is occasionally played there, but has generally not been performed much outside of that city, apart from a 2010 revival in Dresden.  In his program note, Leon Botstein engages in a bit of special pleading about the overlooked late-romantic operas, but I found it easy to understand why this piece hasn't traveled and Schmidt's music, generally, has not attained repertory status, although in this age of omniverous recordings, one can actually put together a fairly long discography of his work.  To start with the best part, Schmidt really knows how to orchestrate!  The sound of this opera is quite sumptuous, if occasionally a bit overwhelming for the singers to handle.  He's also good at harmonization!  But despite the claims in the program notes for his melodic gifts, I thought what this opera actually lacked more than anything else was good tunes!  Indeed, I didn't hear even one really memorable theme anywhere in the piece, and the best writing — fatal for an opera, I would think — was in the instrumental preludes and interludes when no singing was taking place. 

Everybody on the stage was obviously working very hard to put this one over, and the effusive applause for the performance was well-deserved.  (I doubt the applause was for the composer.)  All of the singers turned in sterling efforts, and I thought Stephen Powell, in particular, was most impressive as the Archdeacon.  Lori Guilbeau had the longest role – the central character of the gypsy girl, Esmeralda – and she stood up well to its taxing demands.  The part of Quasimodo is surprisingly small, although the notes inform us that Schmidt, who co-authored the libretto, decided to switch the focus away from the Hunchback of Victor Hugo's novel and place it instead on the cathedral bell-ringer, Quasimodo, who has the last word when he finishes off the Archdeacon by throwing him out the bell-tower winder — there, a plot-spoiler!!.  Turkish basso Burak Bilgili made an effective Quasimodo, getting the most out of his small part.

But the problem, as noted, was the lack of memorable tunes.  Again and again the libretto provided moments when a great tune would have lifted the piece above the routine, and again and again Schmidt came up empty-handed.

The only part of the opera that might be familiar to some music-lovers is an orchestral "Intermezzo" that gets recorded from time to time as filler to a disc with other works.  (I have four recordings of this piece in my CD collection, as well as a recording of the "March of the Priests" from Act II, but didn't remember it well enough to be able to identify where in the opera it occurs!)  Hearing this performed once has sated my appetite, and I'm not going to lobby for the Met to put it on the operatic stage.  It would be rather expensive to perform, given the elaborate sets called for.  But, on the other hand, now the Met specializes in putting on new productions that largely dispense with elaborate effects in light of the high price of engaging star singers…..  So the biggest problem would be getting singers with the requisite voices who would be willing to put in the time to memorize this piece.  But thanks to Botstein and the ASO for providing the opportunity.

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