12 June 2009

Things That Go ‘Wesendonck’ in the Night

JMC in Wagner’s Siegfried, with tenor Lance Ryan.
One of these days, Wotan willing, I’ll hear her sing this, too.

If I have any complaint at all about the career of soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, it’s the uncanny ability of her managers to schedule her choicest engagements at moments when I’m least able to hear her. With clockwork regularity, she sings wonderful roles precisely when I’ve got a deadline, in towns that are just beyond my reach. Not to be paranoid, but I’ve come to feel almost as if her managers were keeping me under surveillance.

That’s why I was so thrilled to learn, at the last minute, that Jeanne-Michèle was singing a program of Wagner with the Orchestre National de l’Aquitaine, in Bordeaux, this week. I was — believe it or not — in between deadlines of my own, and Bordeaux is quite easy to get to. Moreover, Jeanne-Michèle’s would perform the Wesendonck Lieder and the Death of Isolde, and after the retrograde weeks I’ve endured lately, I needed to hear that music. I was off like a rocket to the south.

As Isolde, in some other production I wasn’t able to see.
(That’s tenor John Treleaven as Tristan.)

This was the first time Jeanne-Michèle had sung the Wesendonck Lieder with full orchestra, she told me, though of course she’s sung Isolde all over the place: it’s one of her calling cards. I’d never heard her in any live performance of Wagner, so this was a rare opportunity on many levels.

The sheer power of her instrument is remarkable, like some tawny panther that leaps out at a listener, surging over the orchestra, prowling around the auditorium. In this case, the auditorium was the Palais des Sports — yes, an arena — where the Orchestre frequently offers symphonic concerts. (Whether this is a good idea on other evenings, I can’t say, but this time it worked. Jeanne-Michèle is a rock star, baby.) Give her the right material, such as the Wesendonck Lied “Im Treibhaus,” in which the instrumental component is a storm of moods and passions, and what you get is a double-whammy force of nature.

Yet she knows when to scale back, to caress a phrase with sublime tenderness, and these selections gave her plenty of opportunity to do just that. The wings of her “Der Engel” are like those of a butterfly. Just as I knew they would be.

Her connection to this music was demonstrated in visible ways, too, most tellingly during the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, when she was seated onstage, next to conductor Kwame Ryan. As I say, she’s sung Isolde many times, and the music conjures very specific associations for her: as she listened, she saw people she cares about, so clearly that I could almost have drawn their outlines in the empty air before her.

Best of all, her appreciation didn’t spoil ours. I had my own visions, too, standing right beside hers.

Afterward, I had the great fun of introducing her to my sister-in-law, and of accompanying her to a souper hosted and attended by other really cool people. Is her life always like this? I hope so, for her sake. And as for my sake — she may make a Wagnerite of me yet.

Force of Nature: Really, she’s a Discovery Channel unto herself.


Anonymous said...

Yes, that's all very well and good, but have you heard Lance Ryan? He filled in for Ben Heppner in the title role of "Siegfried" at the Salzburg Easter Festival this year, and I think everybody was happy that Heppner cancelled! He was absolutely magnificent: tireless, physically believable (a rarity, that), high notes to burn (he actually held onto the high notes in the killer "forging scene"), and a deep involvement with the role. He was also great fun in the opera's comic sections. I can't wait to hear him again!

William V. Madison said...

Thanks for the recommendation -- Lance Ryan sounds like a winner, and I look forward to hearing him. (However, I do think the world of Ben Heppner, a fine singer and a helluva decent guy. A shame that anyone might be pleased by his absence.)