Orientalism in France: Leon Botstein and the ASO play Saint-Saëns, Franck, Ravel, Delage, and Bizet’s one-act opera, Djamileh at Carnegie Hall

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Henri Regnault, Hassan et Namouna, 1870

Henri Regnault, Hassan et Namouna, 1870

Orientalism in France
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein, Conductor

February 10, 2012 at 8.00 pm
Carnegie Hall

Julia Zilberquit, piano
Julia Bullock, soprano
Eve Gigliotti, mezzo-soprano
Philip Cutlip, baritone
Colin Ainsworth, tenor
The Collegiate Chorale Singers,
James Bagwell, Director

Camille Saint-Saëns – Orient et occident
César Franck – Les Djinns
Maurice Delage – Four Hindu Poems
Maurice Ravel – “Shéhérazade Overture
Georges Bizet – Djamileh

In a happy coincidence this delightful evening of French orientalist music occurred just as I was coming to the end of Ralph P. Locke’s stimulating book, Musical Exoticism, Images and Reflections (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Without repeating much that I’ll say in my review, I think I should say here that reading it most definitely added to my enjoyment of the concert, and that is serious praise for a book about music. Professor Locke goaded me into looking at the rhetoric of exoticism as a multifaceted historical phenomenon, which carried as many different connotations for the members of Bizet’s or Ravel’s own audiences as they do for us. This is not by any means the thesis of the book, but it is a salutary corollary lesson. Ultimately, however, neither that, nor Leon Botstein’s witty, balanced, and impressively perceptive pre-concert lecture, nor his and Jann Pasler’s excellent essays can quite put us back into those audiences’ top hat, tails, and spats. Perhaps champagne is in order. What was most palpably present in Carnegie Hall that night was some supremely imaginative and enjoyable music, much of it more substantial than one might have expected.

This remark, which implies something less than the expectations one might entertain for, say, Parsifal (which contains nonetheless its share of exotic music), came to me naturally enough, although, when one enters the concert hall, one should leave one’s expectations and prejudices behind. I let it stand only as an illustration of the dubious reputation of exoticism in Western music, of which orientalism is one especially familiar variety. Much of this derives from the association of this kind of music with the stage and particularly dances, as well as certain theories current in the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon worlds of the relative merits of absolute and program music. In these, exoticism, a staple of program music, would be largely excluded from the realm of absolute music. Presumably, exotic passages, even in a purely orchestral work or in a piece for a solo instrument, would compromise the purity of the writing by conjuring up images or even scents in the minds of the listener, and it’s all for the worse that these synaesthetic effects are so often related to brothels, harems, and marketplaces. Today, post-colonial attitudes, which are especially sensitive to the preconceptions associated with the Western empires and their remnant in current prejudices, have further debased the reputation of much of this music. The topic is vast, larger than one might have expected, so large that none of the works on Maestro Botstein’s program are so much as mentioned in Professor Locke’s index, and the book is none the worse for it. Samson et Dalila, Carmen, Daphnis et Chloé, and the Chansons madécasses, among others, provide him with plenty of material.

Saint-Saëns’ Orient et Occident (1869, scored for wind band, expanded for full orchestra in 1909) began the concert with an extraordinary surprise. The lively march with which it opens could easily have been written by Elgar. The high spirits and orderliness of the march indubitably reflect a sense of French superiority, above all when followed by the tonally indeterminate oriental middle section, which is introduced by a snare drum, and the A’ section, in which the march is enhanced by an exciting fugal treatment, before its rousing conclusion. The Elgarian resemblance suggests that the musical stylistics of empire are perhaps more generalized than we assume. Saint-Saëns’ entertaining piece is as typical of the basic expression of imperial dominion as Elgar’s musical evocation of the Grand Durbar of 1911 in his music for The Crown of India. Maestro Botstein and the ASO performed the extremely rare version for full orchestra with spirit and style.

César Franck’s Les Djinns (1884) is an elaborate tone poem with something more than a piano obbligato—the solo is concerto-like in importance and virtuosity. It is a fairly literal treatment of Victor Hugo’s famous poem, even to approximating its “pyramidal” shape, in which each stanza of the poem, beginning with a trisyllabic line, grows to full twelve-syllable alexandrines and diminishes again to two syllables as the djinns pass away. The djinns are known throughout the Islamic world as demonic spirits, bringers of both good and evil, but none the less terrifying. Franck evokes their approach with an unsettling chromatic theme in F-sharp minor against a syncopated ostinato in the bass, at times evoking a march. A very rare work, it covers a great variety of passing moods and sensations over its course. Pianist Julia Zilberquit gave a virtuosic and expressive performance, which, much to the delight of the audience, did full justice to the work’s more introspective moods, and Botstein gave Ms. Zilberquit an evocative, full-bodied accompaniment.

Maurice Delage, who was inspired to become a composer by hearing Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and became a pupil of Ravel’s, composed his Quatre poèmes hindous between 1912–13 after a visit to India with his parents, who owned shoe polish factories there. Meticulous in everything he did, Delage went beyond the usual methods of Western exoticism in transcribing and studying closely recordings he collected in his travels, producing imitations of traditional Indian tuning, techniques of pizzicato and close-mouthed singing, and microtonal effects which presage the methods of the contemporary westerners who explore non-western musical traditions, above all, in the haunting second song in this group, “Lahore.” Soprano Julia Bullock, currently a Juilliard student and a graduate of the Bard College’s Vocal Arts Program (who already distinguished herself as an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music, I hear), sang Delage’s exquisite songs with a vivid presence, total dramatic involvement, a full, very beautiful voice, and technical precision. Given her assurance—actually real charisma—on stage and the maturity of her interpretation, it was hard to believe that this was her Carnegie Hall debut. She brought the house down with full justification. Seeing and hearing her in the songs was quite unforgettable.

Maurice Ravel’s Shéhérazade Overture is a colorful and pleasing student work (1899), written as an opera overture, which relies somewhat on Rimsky Korsakov’s famous tone poem. Poorly received at its first performance, it remained unpublished until long after Ravel’s death. Ravel reprocessed some of the material in his 1903 song cycle of the same name. Botstein and the ASO succeeded in bringing it fully to life as a bit of obscure exotica to be enjoyed, rather than as an early cast-off of purely historical interest.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a single work, Georges Bizet’s one-act opéra comique, Djamileh. When one reads about this work in the literature, the phrase “small masterpiece,” or something like it, crops up repeatedly. Like Djamileh herself, it’s hard not to love this ironic, light-hearted confection.

It is set in Cairo, where a wealthy young man, Haroun, follows a life of pure pleasure. While he spends his evenings drinking and gambling with the same set of friends, he follows a strict regimen in love. In love with love, but not with any woman, he has the slave-merchant bring him a new woman at each new moon, whom he enjoys until the next, then he sets her free and buys another. He and his servant Splendiano agree that his current mistress, Djamileh, is very beautiful, and Splendiano is in fact in love with her and plans to take her when Haroun discards her. Djamileh, however, loves Haroun. when the slave merchant brings another collection of women for him to chose from, Djamileh disguises herself and joins them. When Haroun talks with Djamileh as his new mistress, he realizes that he loves her. Then she reveals herself and, after a momentary test of loyalty, they fall into each others’ arms and declare their love. Along with the Arabian Nights atmosphere of the libretto and Bizet’s music, one naturally takes this in as the story of a flighty, self-indulgent young man—someone we all know, of whatever nation—who doesn’t want to commit himself to any one woman, but who is tricked into facing his true feelings—a slight, but universal story given an oriental setting. The librettist, Louis Gallet, in his use of dreams, added nice touches to his psychological treatment of his characters—if that’s not going too far in a reference to a work which is meant to be an entertainment. 1 In fact, Djamileh is a perfect example of how close opéra comique can come to operetta.

Gallet took the story from an early, rather rambling satirical poem by Alfred de Musset, “Namouna” (1833), in which it forms only the rather brief conclusion. In this, Musset creates the character of a young French lightweight, who, in a moment of boredom, converts to Islam as a lark. Musset derives much amusement from the young man’s lack of principle, which he contrasts with Don Juan’s eternal search for a feminine ideal. In this respect the original goes even further than the critique of French society, seen in a Mahometan mirror.

For me the performance was pure joy, with the ASO playing enthusiastically under Maestro Botstein, who knows the work well, having performed it before. Everyone seemed to enjoy entering in to the exotic colors of the music, its comic spirit, and the lyrical aspects of the love passages. The Collegiate Chorale under James Bagwell sang most musically, with good ensemble and good humor.

Colin Ainsworth sang Haroun with a robust, manly tenor, which showed a softer top for the more lyrical lines. He had a solid understanding of the character and warmed to his character’s capricious side, as well as his amusing interchanges with Splendiano, sung with equal high spirits by Philip Cutlip, whose handsome baritone served Bizet’s shapely tunes well. Eve Gigliotti, looking very much the exotic beauty as Djamileh, used her generous, rich mezzo timbre to bring resonance to the faux-arabe passages in her part and to float her Romantic yearnings most attractively. The best known of the few recordings of this work has the coloratura soprano Lucia Popp in this role, who as wonderful as she was, produced a bright sound (although with a rich lower register) quite unlike the more umbrageous tones necessary to bring out the emotional warmth and sheer sexiness of this smaller, benign sister to Carmen—which Ms. Gigliotti carried off to perfection. All three singers once again showed Leon Botstein’s astuteness in vocal casting.

This couldn’t have been a more delightful performance of a surprisingly neglected work of extremely high quality. Djamileh would seem to be splendid material for some of our smaller regional companies. Meanwhile, those of us who are looking forward to this summer’s Bard Music Festival, Saint-Saëns and his World, will feel that the festival has already begun. Orientalism in France was not only a foretaste of what should be an extraordinary exploration of French music in the later nineteenth century, but an integral part of it, since I could easily envision this concert included within the festival itself. In fact,  festival-goers who missed this concert will be missing something important, since the well-packed schedule seems not to include a session exclusively devoted to orientalism, and there is no understanding French music without it.

  1. In Namouna Musset discussed dreams and dream-like states of mind most interestingly.
About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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