Nadia Boulanger Opera, Despite Cuts, Displays Teacher’s Own Mastery

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Soprano Melissa Harvey sang the role of Hébé in Catapult Opera Company’s production of Nadia Boulanger’s ‘La ville morte.’ (Photos by Alexander Jane Creative)

NEW YORK — It took more than a century, but the only opera composed by Nadia Boulanger with her mentor, Raoul Pugno, was given its New York premiere April 19 by the Catapult Opera Company at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Neal Goren, the organization’s founder, conducted the Talea Ensemble and a quartet of singers in a chamber arrangement of La ville morte, which should have been the sensation of 1914 Paris but for the hand of fate.

Boulanger was best known as the most influential music educator of the 20th century and promoter of the work of her brilliant sister, Lili. Daughter of two musicians, Nadia entered the prestigious Paris Conservatory at the age of 9, studying with Louis Vierne and Gabriel Fauré, among others. She was only 17 when she graduated with first-prize degrees in organ, accompaniment, and composition. Needing to support her family, she immediately established her teaching studio at the family home near Montmartre.

For more than 70 years, she welcomed an international parade of music students drawn by her prodigious technical knowledge of music, keen and perceptive ear, and understanding of how to bring out her students’ strengths. As one of those students myself, I was extremely curious about the work of a mythic figure who had inspired, shaped, encouraged, and terrified seven generations of young musicians, including Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Virgil Thomson, and Philip Glass. The opera’s lurid scenario was intriguingly, wildly at odds with the prim and disciplined grande dame who reigned at 36 rue Ballu.

Jorell Williams (as Alexandre), from left, Melissa Harvey (Hébé), Laurie Rubin (Anne), and Joshua Dennis (Léonard).

But beyond her teaching, Boulanger was intent on becoming a professional composer. She entered the prestigious Prix de Rome competition several times; it had to be frustrating that on her third try she won only second place, in contrast to her sister, who became the first woman to win first prize and the coveted Rome residency. Around this time (1904), Nadia met Pugno, a renowned pianist, pedagogue, and composer, 35 years her senior, who took her under his wing (and, it is now believed, became her lover). In 1908, they collaborated on a song cycle and began to discuss an opera based on a play by Gabriele d’Annunzio. Pugno had already written a number of works for the stage in the 1890s, but for the ambitious young woman this represented a precious opportunity: The collaboration with a prestigious musician promised to help her overcome the entrenched misogyny of the French musical establishment.

Work on the opera began in 1910, and the score was completed in 1913. The premiere was scheduled for 1914 at the Opéra Comique, but two important events intervened: Pugno’s death in 1913 and the outbreak of World War I the following year. The death of Nadia’s prodigiously gifted younger sister in 1918 struck Nadia particularly hard, and after several more thwarted attempts on her own to have the opera staged, she put aside her own compositional aspirations to promote her sister’s work. The orchestral score was lost.

La ville morte slumbered until a reconstruction of the score resulted in a 2005 production in Siena, Italy, which was revived in a semi-staging in Gothenburg in 2020. This new version, with a fresh chamber orchestration for 11 instruments by Joseph Stillwell and Stefan Cwik and overseen by former Boulanger protege David Conte, was premiered at the Greek National Opera in January. Directed by Robin Guarino, with a simple but effective unit set by Andromache Chalfant, costumes by Candice Donnelly, and lights and projections by Jessica Drayton, this version eliminated one incidental character, a men’s chorus, and several scenes. But the central drama remained intact in an evening that lasted just under two hours.

Catapult Opera presented the New York premiere of the Boulanger opera at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

The Dead City is Mycenae, a site in ancient Greece, and the time is turn of the 20th century. Alexandre, a disgruntled poet of middle years, lives unhappily with his wife Anne. She has always lived in Mycenae, and since becoming blind feels alienated and useless. The couple are friends with Léonard, a young archeologist excavating the ruins of the Greek royal family, and his sister, Hébé, who takes care of her brother and acts as Anne’s companion. The dutiful and innocent Hébé is the lust object of the other three characters, setting up a seething web of infidelity, lesbianism, and incest. Even couched in d’Annunzio’s perfumed and sometimes obscure language, this was spicy stuff.

Like a Greek tragedy, the action is conveyed more through dialogue than through action. Hébé reads to and cares for Anne, who dotes on the young woman’s attentions. Hébé spurns the insistent advances of Alexandre, but both Léonard and Anne come to believe that Hébé and Alexandre are lovers. The volatile Léonard goes mad with jealousy and drowns Hébé. Léonard laments his deed, and Anne announces that now she can see.

As befits the setting, the text is full of references to Greek mythology, while plot points and stage actions parallel Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), another scenario of hidden passions. As Hébé reads Antigone to Anne, the young woman unpins her coiffure, to Anne’s delight, recalling the scene where Mélisande lets down her tresses for Pelléas to play with. Water imagery permeates d’Annunzio’s libretto and is heard in the instrumental accompaniment. Rippling motifs in the winds accompany Debussy’s scene at the Fountain of the Innocents, where Mélisande loses her wedding ring; in the Boulanger, similar undulating orchestra textures accompany Hebe’s mention that she is to meet her brother at a fountain (where she will die by her brother’s hand).

Also, as in Pelléas, the men spy on Hébé and draw inferences about her supposed alliances. Hébé is tragically caught in the middle, and in a resigned but passionate soliloquy, prepares herself to die. Like Mélisande, she is central to the story, but her role is primarily passive. The program synopsis was essential reading, especially given the classically euphemistic language.

Joshua Dennis (Léonard), Melissa Harvey (Hébé), and Laurie Rubin (on the floor, as Anne)

The music has an unmistakable Debussian flavor. Vocal lines are largely conversational, with underlying instrumental accompaniment illuminating emotional tone as well as the physical environment — the unavoidable Wagner influence. Moods shift instantly, with less sweep to the phrasing than in the Debussy, though that may have been partly a function of the many cuts in the score. It was hard to gauge the music’s full dynamic range and texture with such a small ensemble: The scoring suggested rather than embodied the plot’s emotional high points. Léonard’s long lamentation after he has killed his sister had more the cerebral restraint of a late Fauré mélodie than the frenzy of a mad scene.

The cast was well calibrated, with persuasive performances from the four principals. As Hébé, soprano Melissa Harvey sang and acted with sweet, girlish sound and demeanor. Mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin conveyed the calm vision of Anne’s Cassandra-like character. Tenor Joshua Dennis, as the tormented archaeologist Léonard, looked and sounded strapping and had the best French. And baritone Jorell Williams effectively conveyed the unsavory bullying of the older man. Balances sometimes favored instruments over the singers, though from a second-row seat I heard the ensemble echo against the walls of the orchestra pit.

In any case, La ville morte is another reminder that Nadia Boulanger was a much better composer than she would have people believe. Goren and Catapult Opera deserve high praise for this singular work and successful event. Perhaps a future version can fill in more of the sketch.