Immigrant Songs

Scream team: Members of Les Arts Florissants exercise their vocal cords at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito

Both Kurt Weill (1900–1950) and Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634–1704) wrote enthusiastically for the music theater of their time, and each produced stage works under difficult conditions that would have discouraged less determined men. Posterity is still trying to catch up with them, to make amends for past neglect. Quite a lot of interesting music was in fact heard not long ago when, by sheer coincidence, the two composers turned up back-to-back in a pair of concerts at Alice Tully Hall.

The Kurt Weill evening was presented by The Collegiate Chorale, Robert Bass conducting, and featured extended excerpts from three key but scarcely overexposed works. They vividly demonstrated just how Weill’s style developed during his all-too-short, peregrine life, beginning in his native Germany (Happy End, 1929), moving on to France (Marie Galante, 1934), and finally ending up in America (Lost in the Stars, 1949). How this ever-astonishing composer adapted to his cultural surroundings without losing his own musical integrity is a constant source of wonderment. It was said that if Weill had suddenly found himself a member of Hottentot society, he would probably have set out to become the best Hottentot composer he could possibly be.

All three shows deserve to be seen more often, but there are songs from each that have become classics and trace Weill’s remarkable musical journey, from the hard-bitten German cabaret style of “Surabaya Johnny” and the smoky nostalgia of the French chanson “J’attends un Navire” to the heartbreaking title tune from Lost in the Stars. Everyone surely has a favorite version of “Surabaya Johnny” (mine is Cathy Berberian’s), but Bebe Neuwirth’s dusky rendition will do. She found able partners in Larry Marshall and Roger Rees, actors who can actually sing as well as provide the necessary witty verbal connections to turn a potentially disheveled “culinary” event (to borrow a phrase from Brecht) into an evening both instructive and entertaining.

William Christie’s famous ensemble Les Arts Florissants is actually named after a brief opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, one of the opéras de poche he wrote in 1685–86 for his patroness, la Duchesse de Guise. In fact, were it not for this pious bluestocking’s generosity, we would have far fewer Charpentier operas of any kind to enjoy, since his archrival, Jean-Baptiste Lully, had a monopoly on the form at the court of Louis XIV. Les Arts Florissants was the first work on a double bill, and a charming piece it is as the various arts intermingle, debate, and, despite the momentary intrusion of “La Discorde,” flourish under Louis’s benevolent reign. Guided by Christie’s unobtrusive direction from the harpsichord and Vincent Boussard’s fluid semi-staging, the eight singers performed with the same vocal polish and stylish sophistication that must have graced the premiere in the duchess’s salon.

La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers is a more solemn piece, tracing the familiar Orpheus legend up to Eurydice’s release from Hades. Perhaps this is just a fragment from a larger, now lost opera, but the little work is satisfying on its own, as moving a tribute to the profundity and eloquent power of music as any Orpheus opera in the repertory. Christie’s total identification with the French Baroque is positively uncanny, and his ability to communicate this elusive idiom’s vitality to his singers and instrumentalists remains one of the marvels of the contemporary musical scene. The ensemble’s visits to New York have become an annual treat, and this year’s gracious tribute to Charpentier, the great composer who gave Les Arts Florissants its name, was extra delicious.

Immigrant Songs