Visiting master class instructor was born to sing Debussy songs
By Peter Jacobi
For this reviewer, Wednesday evening presented one of the more distressing conflicts of the season, one I wish the Jacobs School of Music schedulers had found a way to avoid.
In the Musical Arts Center, the always appreciated Cliff Colnot had come back down from Chicago to conduct the Indiana University Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and a marimba concerto, with, I’m told, a most promising soloist, Marco Schirripa.
At the same hour, 8 o’clock, in Auer Hall, a distinguished visitor, the eminent French baritone Francois Le Roux — here for a short residency, including a master class under the auspices of the Five Friends Master Class Series — was slated to offer a recital of French songs by Debussy, Faure, Poulenc and Ravel. His concert partner: none less than faculty pianist Jean-Louis Haguenauer, the local keyboard whiz at playing the music of Debussy et al.
Because the Le Roux visit was undoubtedly a one-time-only event, I chose to attend his recital, sad, though, to miss the competing attraction. The sadness, of course, was ameliorated by what I heard. Here was an artist born and bred to sing this repertoire. Earlier in his career, this singular artist, now 58, had been quite probably the foremost Pelleas in Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande.” Then, with deepening voice, he turned to another role in the opera, that of Golaud. While collecting kudos on numerous operatic stages in numerous roles, Le Roux also refined his talent for the French song literature, a genre now at the center of his attention.
He sang more than a dozen songs of Debussy, ranging from the 1892 “En sourdine,” a gently rendered setting of poet Paul Verlaine’s verbal evocation of 18th century Watteau paintings, to the 1910 “Trois ballades de Francois Villon,” inspired by Villon, the most renowned French poet of the late Middle Ages. The texts for the latter are earth-bound, more dramatic, and include both a fervent prayer to the Virgin Mary, translated by Debussy into impassioned song, and a ballad to the women of Paris, a fast-paced and chattering exercise unlike most of Debussy’s song output.
Much of the Debussy Le Roux sang dripped with melancholy, and the baritone proved a master at reflecting the sadness embedded in the material. He located, however, in “Fetes galantes, Book 2,” the wit of “Les ingenus” (“The Ingenues”), the delicacy in “Le faune” (“The Fawn”), and the intriguing, eerie quality of “Colloque sentimental” (”Sentimental Dialogue”), a conversation between two ghosts about past joys.
Throughout the concert, Le Roux’s baritone took on all sorts of colors and weights, the latter from full-throated thrust to crooning, all to the benefit of music that requires a blend of sensitivity and intensity. For two songs of Gabriel Faure, “Prison” and “Soir” (“Evening”), there was ample anguish for the first and romance for the other. Francis Poulenc’s setting for Louis Aragon’s “C” requires beauty of utterance and received it. His “Fetes galantes,” also to words of Aragon, calls for mockery; Le Roux’s interpretation was the delightful equivalent of updated Offenbach.
The program, save for encores, ended with Maurice Ravel’s remarkable “Histoires naturelles” (“Natural History”), songs created from prose sketches by Jules Renard, of the peacock, cricket, swan, kingfisher and guinea fowl. Le Roux ennobled the creatures with dramatic declamation.
The baritone’s repertoire could not have been accomplished without the right accompanist, one who knows the territory emotionally and technically. As such, pianist Haguenauer was a brilliantly supportive compatriot from start to finish.
© Herald Times 2014