14 September 2010

Festival at Canari, 2010: Singing

Corsican Idol: In concert during a Festival singing competition.
Front row, left to right: Jacques Scaglia, Michèle Command, Gabriel Bacquier.
Photo by Rita Scaglia© Used with permission.

Coming soon: Photos from this year’s Festival.
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The culmination of every Festival International du Chant Lyrique de Canari is a public concert in the sanctuary of the 505-year-old Convent of Saint-François. In odd-numbered years, the concert takes on a Star Academy atmosphere, as the young singers who have competed all week perform one last time and receive the verdict of the judges — and of the audience. In even-numbered years, the kids who have worked all week in master classes with Michèle Command and Gabriel Bacquier show us what they’ve learned.

This year, I was struck by the progress made even by those young singers in whom I hadn’t seen much progress day-to-day during the course of the week. Something about performing in front of an audience (and a sold-out, appreciative one, at that) seems to rally the internal forces of a young artist. Bits and pieces, individual lessons, discrete phrases, and sheer adrenalin come together to create a satisfying whole. There’s a lesson in that. In at least one case, I worried that the lesson might be negative: struggling with a sore throat and only just beginning an intensive technical study, one young singer nevertheless knocked our socks off. “Now that you know you can do it, you don’t have to do it again,” I said afterward.

One reason for such prudence is that all of us — all of us — hope that these kids will be knocking our socks off ten and even forty years from now. Both Michèle and Gaby stress the need to say no to roles and repertoire; they’ve seen too many young singers pushed too far, too soon, with burnout the inevitable consequence. Deploy your resources wisely, though, and you can sing your heart out, over the course of a long, rewarding career.

Michèle, la Belle
Photo by Rita Scaglia© Used with permission.

That’s why I hope that all the young singers in Canari this week paid special attention to the example Michèle set at the concert, when she sang for us on Friday afternoon.

She hadn’t sung publicly in about eight years, she told me, and, after a run-through, she declared, “Not bad for a 63-year-old woman!” Seeing my consternation that she’d admit to such a scandalous (in the view of most French women) thing as her own age, she shrugged: “Je m’en fiche.”

Surely no one who heard her on Friday would have guessed her age. With the indomitable and inspired pianist Sylvie Lechevalier-Bartoli as her accompanist, Michèle gave us Reynaldo Hahn’s “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” (If my verses had wings, to a text by Victor Hugo*), and then, to my indescribable satisfaction, three songs from Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été.

Waiting for the next performance:
Music-lovers outside the Convent of Saint-François
Photo by Rita Scaglia© Used with permission.

As she took the “stage” of the chapel of the Couvent de Saint-François, following the first round of student performances, she admitted to a case of nerves. But she was completely confident for the Berlioz songs: fresh and supple in the Villanelle, sonorous and sorrowful in “Sur les lagunes,” then buoyant for “L’île inconnue.” In sum, this was a kind of Helen Reddy moment — Michèle was Woman, we heard her roar, in voice too luscious to ignore — the performance of a lifetime, and I was overwhelmed.

Literally so, as it happened. Seated on the floor next to a stack of folding chairs, I fell against them. BAM! Michèle looked my way, but there was no damage. Sometimes music has a powerful effect on me, physically, and this was one of those times.

Having watched her dance and act during the master classes all week long, I began to dream of the projects she might undertake tomorrow. (Surely an astute choreographer or director could devise a theater piece for her like the Winterreise that Trisha Brown created for Simon Keenlyside.) This much seemed clear: we haven’t heard the last of Michèle Command, and thank goodness for that.

The Festival lived up to its international title yet again this year, with singers from Canada, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, Armenia — and oh yes, also from “The Continent” (a.k.a. France). Another veteran singer (his age somewhere in between Michèle’s and the students’) took the stage at Friday’s concert, too: Corsican native Carlo Ciabrini compensated for the mysterious dearth of tenors on the program with four arias that also give an idea of the range of repertory we typically hear in Canari, from Le Roi d’Ys to La Fanciulla del West. Seated in the audience was the legendary French soprano Renée Doria, gorgeous and charming.** In all, a festive occasion, and a triumph for Jacques Scaglia.

*NOTE: The French words for “verses” and for “worms” are the same — for reasons that defy explanation. But now you know why I can’t help but think, each time I hear this lovely song, “Si mes vers à moi, eux, avaient des ailes, il seraient des mouches!” Please understand nevertheless that Michèle’s verses were assuredly birds, and not houseflies.

**I didn’t get much of a chance to talk with Mme Doria, but perhaps that’s just as well. For one thing, I was awestruck, and for another, my French accent flew out the window whenever I came near her. I sounded like a tourist. I couldn’t possibly have said anything that would interest her in the slightest — and I can’t imagine why she’d want to speak to me at all.

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