By Kyle MacMillan
HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. ‒ Soprano Renée Fleming and the Emerson String Quartet have already earned a secure place in the classical-music history of our era. They have nothing left to prove. They could easily coast the rest of their careers and just perform well-known favorites, and audiences would no doubt keep thronging to hear them. But these artists are doing just the opposite ‒ still taking risks and trying new things.
A case in point came July 28 before a sold-out audience in the 805-seat Martin Theatre at the Ravinia Festival, a 108-year-old musical extravaganza that takes place each summer in this suburb north of Chicago. Fleming and the Emerson joined pianist Simone Dinnerstein and actress Jennifer Ehle for just the second performance anywhere of Penelope, a hybrid vocal-theatrical work by composer André Previn and playwright Tom Stoppard. (Ravinia was one of four co-commissioners.) But as exciting as the prospects for such a collaboration were, the resulting work left little in the way of a resounding emotional impact.
A few years ago, Fleming and the members of the Emerson were discussing the idea of commissioning a work by Previn, with whom Fleming had worked on such significant projects as his first opera, A Streetcar Named Desire. At the recommendation of the soprano, they suggested a possible collaboration between Stoppard and Previn, who were friends (and had collaborated on the 1977 play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour), and the two esteemed creators concurred. Stoppard proposed a work that would center on Homer’s Penelope, who faithfully waits 20 years for the return of her husband, Odysseus, from the Trojan War while fending off more than 100 suitors in the meantime. (The story also formed the basis of Monteverdi’s great opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, which premiered in 1639-40.)
Unfortunately, Previn was not able to finish the music for the work before his death at 89 in February, and the artists never got a chance to work on it with him. Luckily, according to an article in Ravinia’s in-house magazine, the composer was far enough along on the project that it could be completed, with Previn’s longtime copyist, David Fetherolf, doing what Fleming called the “lion’s share of the work.” “He knows André’s voice,” she said in the article, “he knows the musical language, he knows everything about how he writes.”
The piece, which runs about 40 minutes, alternates between sections featuring the soprano and others given to a narrator, who isn’t really a narrator at all but an extension of the central character. The textual writing for both the soprano and narrator is in the first person, and, at a couple of points, a line goes from the soprano to the narrator without interruption. The back-and-forth can be a little awkward and even a little jarring at times. Why Stoppard and Previn chose this approach versus a more traditional story-setting narrator was not clear, nor was it evident why certain sections were assigned to the narrator and others to the soprano or why the narrator was given the bulk of the text. The lack of program notes made it impossible to look for answers. It was also puzzling why all the participants in this work were amplified, especially in the intimate Martin Theatre. Was is thought that it might be disjointed to amplify the narrator and not the musicians? But, surely, the right mix could have been struck between an amplified narrator and unamplified musicians.
There is much to admire about Stoppard’s poetically cadenced text, which manages to seem fresh and modern yet simultaneously capture the feeling of an earlier time. There were only a few stumbles such as the oddly anachronistic phrase, “stay-at-home faithful wives,” which sounds like something one might read in a contemporary news account. Ehle, who has starred in four of Stoppard’s plays, proved an able narrator, settling more comfortably into the flow of the playwright’s language as the piece progressed.
Previn created an engaging, middle-of-the-road tonal language for the piece, with moments of quiet dreaminess, restrained melancholy, and pressing urgency. One stand-out section, in which the soprano is racked with anxiety about what to do next, is smartly animated with a syncopated dance motif. With the exception of a few longer, more involved solos, the piano passages were short and clipped ‒ quick runs or rhythmic bursts that provided punctuation and accents. The always reliable soloist, Dinnerstein made the most of her supporting role, with playing that was precise and vigorous.
Most of the instrumental accompaniment is provided by the string quartet, but, oddly, the quartet and piano are virtually never heard together. The quartet offers a brief introduction, provides interludes between the textual sections, and, like the piano, accents what is said and sung. But it also offers more extended back-up to the soprano, though there is no shortage of passages where she sings a cappella. The Emerson always seems to excel in quasi-theatrical works like this, bringing the kind of dramatic immediacy and collaborative zeal that they require. Last year, the ensemble took part in another such work at Ravinia, Shostakovich and the Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy.
All that said, it was hard not to wish that the music had more a distinctive sound and offered more emotional zing. Singing with her usual technical sure-footedness, elegant poise, and tonal purity, Fleming made the most of Previn’s score, passionately conveying, for example, the urgency of a line midway through the piece when Penelope calls out for her missing husband. It is rich dramatic material, and it’s too bad Previn was not able to mine it more deeply and give Fleming more to sink her teeth into.
The program opened with the Emerson performing two works alone, starting with Haydn’s String Quartet No. 55 in D major, Op. 71, No. 2, one of six quartets the composer dedicated to Count Anton Georg Apponyi. These four musicians are known for their muscularity and boldness, but they clearly know when to pull back as well. They brought a sprightly ease and relaxed freedom to their playing that suited this piece, especially their gentle approach to the slow second movement and zippy, energetic take on the finale.
They followed it up with Barber’s masterful String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11, which the composer first completed in 1935-36 and continued to revise until 1943. This unabashedly romantic work is best known for its slow movement, which the composer excerpted and arranged for string orchestra ‒ his celebrated Adagio for Strings. But unlike the Adagio, which stands on its own, the two surrounding movements in the quartet give this music context and allow it be heard in an arguably more profound way.
The Emerson was at the peak of its powers here, compellingly conveying the questioning, unsettled, sometimes agitated feel of the first movement as it reveled in Barber’s rich, full-bodied harmonies, with each of the four musicians capitalizing on his turn in the spotlight. Led by the affecting playing of first violinist Philip Setzer and supported by the fulsome bottom notes of cellist Paul Watkins, the four musicians made the most of the slow second movement, infusing it with a reflective intensity while still allowing the music to breathe. Altogether, it was a complex, satisfying performance, with the Emerson careful to bring a certain emotional backbone to their playing and never allow the music to become saccharine.
Penelope debuted July 24 at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass. It will be performed again May, 14, 2020, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.