Under Leon Botstein's leadership, the American Symphony Orchestra seeks out significant works that have not been played in the United States, gets parts prepared, gets soloists to learn them, and presents excellent concert performances. That was certainly the case this afternoon in Carnegie Hall when they presented the United States premiere of Alberic Magnard's opera, Berenice. The opera was written in 1909, premiered in 1911, and never made it to America, evidently, as the composer died at the start of World War I, defending his home from the invading German army, and his music mainly sank out of sight. (One of his few champions was Ernest Ansermet, music director of L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, who recorded one of the Magnard symphonies.)
This is a rather unusual opera. It tells the story of the Jewish Queen Berenice. According to Magnard's plot (he wrote the libretto), after the Romans had conquered ancient Israel, Berenice was brought to Rome, where she became the lover of Titus, the Roman general (and son of Emperor Vespasian). They had a hot five year affair, but then Vespasian fell ill and the moment of truth arrived. Would Titus keep his promise to marry Berenice and make her Empress of Rome when he took office upon his father's death, or would he bow to the demands of patriotic Romans who could not stand a foreigner in the Caesar's palace, and require her to return to her homeland to demonstrate his loyalty to Rome above his personal emotional interests? That's the entire plot of this three-act opera that contains about 2-1/2 hours of music. During the first act they receive news of Vespasian's illness, during the second act Titus agonizes about the terrible choice and gives the bad news to Berenice, and in the third she leaves after a final confrontation with Titus.
The music is absolutely gorgeous. Magnard was a master of orchestration, producing lush orchestral textures and beautiful harmonies. The piece is through-composed, in Wagnerian style, by a composer who clearly knows what he is about, but what Magnard fatally lacked was the ability to conjure memorable themes that would imprint themselves on the listener at first hearing and carry him or her through the lengthy piece.
Magnard's libretto is very talky and devoid of real action, although there is dramatic tension from the situation confronting the characters and its resolution. Peculiarly, Magnard foreswore high voices for his principal characters, omitting sopranos and tenors. Berenice is sung by a mezzo-soprano, as is her attendant, Lia. Titus is sung by a baritone, and the only other significant character, Mucien, a general-retainer-counselor, is sung by a bass. There are a few brief men's roles for servants and the like, the only tenors to be heard. There is a chorus which is sometimes used instrumentally for texture, but has a dramatic role as the rebellious people of Rome in the second act and the crew of the ship that will sail Berenice back to Judea in the third act.
Botstein seemed to have the measure of the piece and had the orchestra playing quite well and the chorus, the Collegiate Chorale Singers prepared by James Bagwell, was superb. Tempi seemed just and never bogged down, as can happen in music of this genre.
In the lead roles of Berenice, Titus, Mucien and Lia, we had Michaela Martens, Brian Mulligan, Gregory Reinhart, and Margaret Lattimore. Given the very full orchestration of this piece, Wagner-sized voices were called for. Martens was intermittently successful at cutting through the textures, having her best moments, I thought, in the last act, especially in the final scene, which was open to her to do a little chewing of the scenery (if there were scenery). Brian Mulligan as Titus seemed more comfortable battling the heavy accompaniment, and had numerous excellent bits. I would certainly be eager to hear him again in something more central to the repertory. It was hard for either principal to make a great impression singing hours of recitative, in effect, with no real arias to speak of. Margaret Lattimore as Lia seemed to have the bigger voice of the two mezzos, and comfortably handled the brief role. The standout performer, for me, was Gregory Reinhart as Mucien. His voice seemed bigger by several degrees of magnitude than those of his colleagues, and he was most actively involved in dramatizing his part through gestures as well as singing. (Mulligan did no acting that I could discern, and Martens' few histrionics came in that final scene. Despite the passion of Berenice's music, she presented a placid aspect through much of the afternoon.) All of the soloists were more than adequate to convey the beauties of this score.
It is understandable that Berenice has not been performed at all in the U.S. before now, much less been staged by some enterprising opera company. I don't think a production would be particular expensive to mount – each act would take one set, and a unit set with projections could probably handle the entire opera with a few props added in – most significantly, some simulation of Berenice's boat in the last act. There are only four principal singers, a relatively small chorus could handle those chores, and as they did this afternoon, soloists from the chorus could handle the brief comprimario roles. The problem would be getting singers with really big voices to cope with the orchestra, and of course getting an audience to come to hear a lengthy Wagnerian work by a relatively unknown composer who is a bit deficient in not inventing memorable tunes. They began at 2 pm, took one 20 minute intermission between the first two acts, and ended around 5 pm.
I have to thank Botstein and the ASO for taking the plunge and making this available. I thought the first act the weakest of the three, the third act the strongest, and the entire thing worth hearing at least once. Now that they've broken the ice for this piece, I wonder whether anybody else in the U.S. will be inspired to put it on…. I wouldn't turn down the opportunity to attend a staged production.