Monday, March 19, 2012

Man lebt ja nur ein einzig mal: Schmidt's Notre Dame

Franz Schmidt's Notre Dame, a work of lushly romantic orchestration and extravagantly romantic sensibility, was completed in 1906, but not premiered until April of 1914. It enjoyed some popularity between the world wars, but has remained in one of the operatic repertory's dustier corners. The American Symphony Orchestra polished it up nicely for a concert performance at Carnegie Hall this Sunday. (To judge by the impassioned tone of his accompanying note, music director Leon Botstein may have taken the primary initiative in the project.) The program claims structural similarities between Notre Dame and Berg's Wozzeck. The development of Notre Dame through loosely linked scenes, and the use of its orchestra, which holds a little aloof from the singers, may bear this out. I found it far more reminiscent of Korngold, with sweeping symphonic intermezzi and rich orchestral illustration of place and character. (The only complete recording I know of features Gwyneth Jones as the gypsy Esmeralda, Kurt Moll as Quasimodo, and James King as Phoebus.) Although Phoebus is heralded with military trumpets, and the solemn archdeacon accompanied by imposing brass and organ, Esmeralda is the only one whose character, rather than function, is (it is implied) illustrated by the orchestra. True, the shimmering strings, evoking "folk" harmonies of central Europe before swelling into harp-crowned ecstasies, are very much about how Esmeralda is envisioned by all those around her, but it also appears to demonstrate her innate goodness, kindness, etc. Which brings me to what seems to be the central focus of Schmidt's opera, the Ewig-Weibliche.

There are a number of characters in Notre Dame who never meet each other; driving the drama is the fact that a Heldentenor, a dramatic tenor, a baritone, and a bass all adore or lust after the gypsy dancer (soprano.) Hugo's plot is drastically condensed, with a few narrations of past events to fill in blank spots. The vocal writing is substantially declamatory; one of the characteristics I found most fascinating was the tendency of different personages to "talk over" each other, intensely preoccupied with their own emotions or goals; only the orchestra has the whole picture. Von Hoffmannsthal, incidentally, saw the opera in 1914 and wrote Strauss about it; he liked the music, but dismissed the text as absurd. The opera is in many ways richly symphonic, with a rich prelude to each act, and three intermezzi (the first of these was premiered on its own, and remains independently performed.) Botstein kept tempi fairly steady, letting the orchestration speak for itself in matters of dramatic nuance and motivation. Strong support was lent by the Collegiate Chorale as the alternately jubilant and frenzied populace of Paris.

The considerable vocal demands of the opera were well met by the soloists, extending to the fine contributions of baritone David Pershall as a fellow-officer of Phoebus, and Tami Petty, who gave a vividly characterized cameo as the innkeeper Falourdel. The character of Quasimodo is more peripheral to the plot, and less socially marginalized, than in Hugo's original. The bell ringer is perfectly articulate, and never the object of judicial miscarriage or public torture. His is, however, the deepest voice on stage, which gives him some air at least of his tremendous and potentially menacing strength. Burak Bilgili mashed syllables together occasionally, but shaped his phrases nicely. His triumphant cry of sanctuary ("Asyl! Asyl! Asyl!") rang impressively out over chorus and orchestra. Tenor Robert Chafin sang the thankless role of Gringoire with secure musicality and welcome panache. Corey Bix, as the luckless Phoebus (here no worse than luckless) demonstrated impressive stamina, as Schmidt seems to have shared some of Richard Strauss' feelings about heroic tenor roles. Phoebus' high notes were given the same ardent commitment as the rest of the role (Bix' cry of "Beneidet mich, ihr Götter!" was especially impressive.) Lori Guilbeau brought a rich and sweet-toned soprano to the role of Esmeralda, with impressively full sound even at the top of her range. Stephen Powell excelled in the central role of the archdeacon. His German was beautiful, and his phrasing expressive. Powell has a strong, sonorous baritone, and as in the Traviata I saw him in last month, he proved capable of bringing psychological depth to an unsympathetic character. The monologue which opens Act II, in which the archdeacon contemplates the sleeping Esmeralda and the health of his soul, was compelling. Despite the constraints of the concert format, I felt that Powell created an impressive portrayal of a hypocrite convinced of his own virtuous sincerity. This error is mirrored in the savage jubilation of the populace in the concluding scene, and Quasimodo is left to ring the death knell. Dramatically problematic though it may be, Schmidt's refiguring of Hugo's epic proves a rewarding musical experience.


  1. I find Notre Dame’s decadence too unchecked to enjoy even as a guilty pleasure, and can only ask why oh why did Botstein not do Fredigundis? A much stronger and more unusual score, which qualifies, alongside Das Buch and the Fourth Symphony, as Schmidt’s best work. It’s also even more obscure than ND.

    That Strauss letter may perhaps be explained by the fact that Hofmannsthal the philologist wrote a Habilitationsschrift on Goethe and Hugo which precipitated the Chandos Brief. But I don’t find his dismissal harsh; Schmidt’s text is very weak.

    1. Understandable; restrained Notre Dame is not. As a guilty pleasure I find its too-much-is-just-right sensibilities rather fun. I regret to say I am not familiar with Fredigundis at all, but am now also regretting the missed opportunity to hear not only a more interesting score, but an opera about a Merovingian queen! I'd be very curious to know what Schmidt's sources for the plot were (besides Gregory of Tours.) I didn't know that about Hofmannsthal (thanks) but also concur re: the text.

    2. Fredigundis was adapted from the historical novel of the same name by Felix Dahn, and you'll know how problematic that makes it better than I... I don't think many people are familiar with the opera; there's only one (live) recording and it isn't widely available. There's a rumour that Jerome Kern attended the 1922 Berlin premiere and came away with the idea for 'The Way You Look Tonight', which is astonishing if true and probably too good to be. For musical evidence you'd have to be satisfied with a falling fifth...

    3. Felix Dahn! The plot thickens and the problems multiply, although Gregory of Tours, a grumpy bishop of the sixth century, is hardly an unproblematic source. However implausible it may be, that is a great story about Jerome Kern. I could never hear the "Avalon"/"E lucevan le stelle" relationship, so I'd probably be doomed in the alleged case of the Schmidt/Kern.

  2. Leon takes the primary initiative in all Leon projects.


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