By William Albright
HOUSTON — A running gag has it that literary Easterners always take the same classic novel on their long beach vacations but never seem to finish War and Peace. Well, Marcel Proust’s monumental À la recherche du temps perdu, known in English as Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time and published in seven weighty volumes between 1913 and 1927, makes Tolstoy’s doorstop look like a pamphlet. But I’ll bet Da Camera artistic and general director Sarah Rothenberg has read the whole thing more than once—and doubtless in French. After all, she studied with French pianist Yvonne Loriod for a year in Paris, her husband is French, and the French government made her a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2001.
Rothenberg’s latest foray into French musical and literary culture is A Proust Sonata: 7 tableaux en musique, given its world premiere Feb. 11 in Wortham Theater Center’s Cullen Theater. Workshopped at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at New York’s Bard College, it is her second homage to Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust and his magnum opus. In 1995, Da Camera inaugurated its innovative Music and the Literary Imagination series with Marcel Proust’s Paris, a program of French music of Proust’s era and readings from Remembrance of Things Past. Part of the Great Performers at Lincoln Center series that same year, it was also presented at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center in 1997 and performed the following year as part of the Cervantino International Festival in Guanajuato, Mexico.
Its seven tableaux/movements echoing Remembrance’s seven volumes, A Proust Sonata is a dreamily evocative mood piece combining quotes from four of the novels; music that was written by composers Proust knew or that captures the quotations’ atmosphere or philosophy; visual images related to Proust’s life and work; and touching personal vignettes about the author drawn from the memoir of his real-life maid Céleste Albaret. Rothenberg adapted the text (using various translations, including her own), played the piano solo and with guest musicians, and recruited distinguished New York-based partners. The team included Tony-winners Marina Draghici (scenery and costumes) and Jennifer Tipton (lighting), Obie-winning actor Henry Stram (who played both Proust and Remembrance’s semi-autobiographical Narrator), fellow Obie recipient Hannah Wasileski (projections on several scrims and hanging screens), Bart Fasbender (sound design, which included Reynaldo Hahn’s self-accompanied 1929 recording of “Les charbonniers et les fariniers” from Offenbach’s La boulangère à des écus), and Nancy Hume, who played Céleste and the fictional maid Françoise.
The 2½-hour work opens in the town where Proust spent his childhood summers, given the fictional name Combray in Remembrance. Against a backdrop of photos of the place taken by Rothenberg herself, the barefoot Proust/Narrator pads somewhat balletically around his bedroom, which is outfitted with a simple chaise and stacks of books, and opines about the delights of sleep. In this section, Rothenberg played “Des pas sur la neige” from Debussy’s first book of Preludes and “Des Abends” from Schumann’s Op. 12 Fantasiestücke and accompanied tenor Nicholas Phan in “Ici-bas!” by Gabriel Fauré. Phan sang here and elsewhere with lovely mezza voce and dark power when needed but also without ideal steadiness, and Rothenberg played with feathery delicacy that later in the program she replaced with a more robust sound.
The tableau “Chez Madame Lemaire” evokes the fashionable salon where Proust met composers Reynaldo Hahn (a future lover as well as collaborator) and others. Here, Phan sang Hahn’s “Reverie,” “Mai,” “Fêtes gallants,” and the ever-popular “Si me vers avaient des ailes.” A real rarity was a pair of movements (“Antoine Watteau” and “Paul Potter”) from Hahn’s piano suite Portraits de peintres, with narration from the Proust poems that inspired them.
In Remembrance, the Narrator is haunted by the memory of a sonata by a composer named Vinteuil. Here, in a tableau titled “Vinteuil’s Sonata,” as in 1995’s Marcel Proust’s Paris, that music was represented by Fauré’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A. Rothenberg and Boson Mo played it with a passion worthy of Proust’s intoxicated zeal for music.
The “Balbec” tableau focuses on the Narrator’s awed recollections of seeing the sea and sky from his window in the fictional town of the same name. Rothenberg offered a supple reading of Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’ocean” against projections of waves and clouds. In “Time Regained,” Proust/Narrator effuses about a particularly vivid shade of blue, listens to a wireless broadcast from the Paris Opéra, and describes his life’s work as a lens through which readers will see themselves. In addition, Céleste outlines the author’s eccentricities and night-owl writing habits. Rothenberg gave Chopin’s “Berceuse” and Debussy’s “Harmonie du soir” more starch and grit than one often hears.
In “A View of Delft,” the Narrator sadly recalls the death of a painter named Bergotte, overcome by the beauty and craft of Vermeer’s famous painting. As a kind of in memoriam, Jackson Guillen, Jae-Won Bang, Jill Valentine, and Sonya Matoussova gave a lovely performance of the mournful slow movement from Beethoven’s Op. 135 String Quartet in F major.
“Celeste’s Interlude” (not one of the numbered tableaux) is that character’s account of Proust’s joyful completion of Remembrance, the repeatedly revised manuscript pages of which she pins to a wall and helps him paste together, and her tearful reliving of the author’s failing health that prompts thoughts of his own death. Finally, with Fauré’s “Ici-bas!” again reminding us of the painful transience of worldly delights, “Proust’s Tea” pays tribute to the great writer’s rapturous discovery of the now-iconic power of tea-softened madeleines to trigger a flood of memories both wrenching and enriching.
William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.