By Jason Victor Serinus
SEATTLE — Scheduling a 17-minute world premiere as the “opening act” for Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, aka Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, comes with the risk that the new music will be overshadowed by an established masterpiece. But at the Seattle Symphony on Jan. 9, the Figaro Gets a Divorce Orchestral Suite by Russian-born British composer Elena Langer (b. 1974) more than held its own in the face of a dazzling performance of the concerto by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, under the sweeping arms of guest conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.
Based on Langer’s opera Figaro Gets a Divorce (2016), the six-movement suite draws from her music to a libretto by David Pountney that melds Beaumarchais’s play La mère coupable (1792) with Ödön von Horváth’s dark émigré comedy Figaro Gets A Divorce (1936). Without attempting to directly reference Mozart or Rossini, Langer’s score helps depict the fortunes of the Almaviva household as they flee a revolution taking place during a turbulent period in 20th-century Europe. The libretto transforms origins and relationships: the Count now has an illegitimate daughter named Angelika with Barbarina, the Countess has given birth to Serafin, the result of her liasion with Cherubino, and an evil Major is blackmailing her. All present Langer with ample opportunities to mystify and delight.
The suite begins mysteriously. Flutes, piccolos, celesta, and other high-pitched instruments create a strange, exotic, and slightly threatening landscape that, according to Langer’s program note, is filled with sounds of “cicadas, insects, and birds in the warm night-time garden.” Undercurrents both exotic and erotic were not only palpable in the ensuing love scene between the two illegitimate children, but also were made more compelling by Emelyanychev’s long, irrepressibly animated, and perpetually waving arms that terminated in incredibly loose and expressive, seemingly double-jointed hands and fingers. For the sighted, there were two shows going on simultaneously, with the strength of Langer’s music prevailing.
The hilarious and delightful third movement, which depicted the family’s anxious flight, sounded like The Charge of the Light Brigade meets The Keystone Cops meets the William Tell Overture. Regretfully short, it segued into a tango that used accordion, bongos, and maracas to depict the Major. Just as I was having trouble taking the Major’s evil seriously, and feeling as though I was listening to a film score that never had enough time to settle in and go deeper, Langer switched to a purportedly nostalgic scene whose strange and pervasive beauty erased all complaints. After a short pause, her music grew increasingly circus-like. A waltz segued into a bit of Bernstein’s Jets (from West Side Story) and then to a bit of blues. Langer called it a Rondo in which all the main characters’ music serve as verses, and the “kaleidoscopic episodes become like the numbers in a cabaret.” From audience reaction, it seems some were mystified by it all. I, in turn, thought it a teaser par excellence; I can’t wait until Figaro Gets a Divorce comes to a theater near me.
Bavouzet, a Yamaha artist who played a Yamaha grand brought in for the occasion, found himself paired with a conductor whose experience leading the period band Il Pomo d’Oro may have influenced his preference for fleet tempos. Rather than being fazed by this challenge, or by the few wrong notes he hit during rapid passages, Bavouzet took advantage of Emelyanychev’s propulsive pace to contrast it, whenever Beethoven’s music allowed, with marvelously flowing legato passages whose tenderness, rallentandos, and perfectly paced transitions introduced a uniquely sensitive and fluid voice all their own. Which is not to say that Bavouzet’s rapid passages were anything less than thrilling. It was impossible for audience members to refrain from applause after the opening Allegro.
Much of the second movement was sublime, with a deftly managed conclusion that maintained the overall feeling of sanctity until the last possible second. With the Yamaha’s upper octaves sounding like bells ringing on high, the Rondo: Allegro that ends the work melded strength, delicacy, and virtuosity in equal measure. After four rounds of vigorous applause, Bavouzet capped his triumph with a tribute to a close friend, the recently deceased haute couture designer Emanuel Ungaro. Ungaro, who accompanied the unveiling of one of his fashion collections with a Bartók string quartet — “You have no idea how difficult it is to look sexy to this music,” Ungaro’s wife told Bavouzet during the event — would have loved the joy in his friend’s performance of the Presto movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 6, Op. 10, No. 2.
The final work of the evening, Mendelssohn’s tune-filled Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, Italian, came off as zippy and energetic but ultimately anti-climactic. Was the performance too lightweight, or did it not have a chance after the superb renditions of Langer and Beethoven? Certainly the second movement Andante felt too fast to communicate anything sacred, the third movement seemed no more than a succession of nice tunes, and the finale went by too fast to work its charms. It seems strange to call such a delightful symphony a bit of a downer, but after reaching glorious heights in Langer and Beethoven, perhaps a less animated Emelyanychev didn’t know where to go.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.