Sunday, May 28, 2017

Raw Passion from Life to Art

Romance, Trysts and Intrigue:
The Secret Love Lives of the Great Composers
The University Club
January 24, 2017

A recital/lecture by soprano Sarah Moulton Faux and pianist Michael Fennelly

Il perfido Giacomo Puccini
Who knew that the inspiration for Liu in Turandot came from Puccini’s virtuous and self-sacrificing maid who committed suicide when his wife accused her of having an affair with her husband? The accusations were unfounded but the composer at the time was actually having one of his many affairs with that maid’s cousin, a vivacious young woman who would provide the inspiration for Minnie in La fanciulla del West.

Richard and Cosima Wagner, looking respectable
Or who knew that Wagner had been involved in a prolonged affair with the great pianist and composer Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, who was married at the time to Hans von Bulow, a pianist and the conductor of the premieres of both Tristan and Die Meistersinger. She bore Wagner three children (all named after Wagnerian characters) before von Bulow granted her a divorce. Cosima was now free to marry Wagner at which point he became Liszt’s son-in-law.

Sarah Moulton Faux
Mustering a hybrid recital meets lecture, an underutilized format that has wonderful potential, soprano Sarah Moulton Faux and pianist Michael Fennelly regaled us with a rich and stimulating evening.

Reading from a witty script, our host and soprano for the evening Moulton Faux served up a feast of these juicy morsels of gossip and many more like it from the annals of music history. Her exegesis was punctuated by a series of musical illustrations that brought her tabloid worthy stories to life.

The repertoire was incredibly diverse. Songs, arias and lieder from some of the greatest composers ranged from the high romantic period to the early twenty-first century, including an under appreciated woman composer from the American South.

Pianist Michael Fennelly
About halfway through the program, pianist Michael Fennelly dropped a bomb on the whole evening. In a profusion of wild Dionysian energy he played from memory Liszt’s piano transcription of the overture to Wagner’s chthonic opera Tannhäuser. The piano was like putty in his hands all evening long, but especially in this piece he manage to coax out of it sounds and moods and feelings that were utterly gripping. It was definitely one of the highlights of the evening. During the whole extended piece I was overcome with the thought, “We do not live in Dionysian times.” None of the recent Met productions of Wagner have come any where near tapping into the moments of unbridled passion that pepper the great composer’s work. Fennelly came the closest I have yet to hear in a live performance in our time. It was awesome.

Sarah Moulton Faux shined in the opening number, La canzone di Doretta from Puccini’s La Rondine. She brought the warm glow of personal emotional connection to Schumann’s Widmung from one of his song cycles. She very charmingly recounted in an aside that it was one of the songs that she had performed at her wedding. She also sounded great in Arthur Sullivan’s Arabian Love Song, another discovery and a real highlight.

Robert and Clara Schumann
And in the climax, the last piece of the night, Je veux vivre from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette we witness the singer in full form, completely loose by now and warmed up. Her rendition was joyful and carefree.

Each of her selections were framed by a little backstory, her own personal research into the tabloid gossip from the lives of each of these great composers. The premise of the evening asks the question: how did each of these visionary artists manage to conjure such raw emotions, such wild passions, such reckless abandon in their works? The answer is that they lived it.

With one notable exception. It is said that the American composer Lola Williams carried a lifelong love affair with her favorite poet, William Shakespeare. Though the 300 some odd years separating them meant that it would forever remain unconsummated. However, this unfortunate fact only seems to have heightened the power of her music.

– Lui & Lei

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