A quiet place
'My business is to love' (songs and readings based on the poems of and letters of Emily Dickinson)
Renée Fleming (soprano), Claire Bloom (speaker), Helen Yorke (piano)
Charles Nelson Reilly (director)
This evening of songs and readings includes settings of Emily Dickinson's
poems by Ricky Ian Gordon, Robert Beaser, Lee Hoiby, Ernst Bacon,
Andrée Previn, Scott Wheeler, Michael Tilson Thomas, Aaron Copland,
Ned Rorem and Jake Heggie. The scenario and text is by William Luce.
Emily Dickinson's poetry seems a natural fit with contemporary art song.
Her deceptively simple lines and disturbing symbolic conjunctions trapped
in a web of sound play ask to be set to music, and her dry humour and deep
feeling provide a personal focus for the voice in the absence of a
conventional poetic ego.
The songs in this evening's selection, about half of them commissioned for
the event, the rest representing a comprehensive range of contemporary
American composers, suggest that the fit is so natural there isn't a great
deal of choice for the composer: almost all of them present a simple,
speech-informed setting of the words, with an atmospheric or antiphonal
piano line. The exception, Michael Tilson Thomas' setting of "Fame",
strongly jazz-influenced, is striking and bitterly humorous but somehow
tries too hard not to do the obvious. But Dickinson's ability to inbue
familiar words with pure feeling doesn't need clever stuff: the music can
and should simply provide a physical realisation of her poetic voice. Ned
Rorem's shattering setting of "Love's stricken 'why' " is the most extreme
song because the poem is the most intense.
This project was originally devised for the late Arlene Augér and
Julie Christie, and was inherited by Renée Fleming, who served as
music director and also worked to commission the new works. Fleming's
commitment is undoubted, and her preparation thorough, give or take a few
mistakes the words which suggest that the settings haven't quite got the
internal rhymes and word rhythms right. But her stage personality is too
theatrical and demonstrative for the lapidiary texts and music. She acts as
if she is in pain at least as much as finding the emotion in the songs. Her
performance of the Previn settings, which provide a comparatively generic
channel for her to pour expression into, were the most organic, even though
the songs were the least intersting in themselves.
Claire Bloom read selections from Dickinson's poetry and letters as Emily,
with Fleming interjecting as her gigglier sister Lavinia. Bloom's American
accent started understated and disappeared altogether, but her performance
understatedly delivered Dickinson's battiness and sense of wonder. The
readings were divided into sections for each month of the year, with each
part of the programme beginning with an account of a musical evening, a
neighbour's soirée in January, Jenny Lind in July.
A further complication to Fleming's performance was the dramatic fiction of
the evening. Fleming's depiction of Lavinia, though her spoken performance
was pretty good as well, wasn't different enough from her singing of
Emily's texts. The idea seems to have been that Fleming's vocal intensity
would reflect the inner power of the poetry, while Bloom delivered the
surface of the text. But a more introspective performer like Dawn Upshaw
(or Ian Bostridge) might have integrated the inner and outer forces more
Helen Yorke provided a sympathetic and quietly virtuoso piano accompaniment.