Korngold and Boulanger

Lili Boulanger
Faust et Hélène

Faust et Hélène

Hélène – Susanna Tudor-Thomas (mezzo-soprano)
Faust – Ian Caley (tenor)
Méphisto – Nicholas Folwell (bass-baritone)


Violanta – Tamsin Dives (soprano)
Alfonso – Ian Caley (tenor)
Simone – Nicholas Folwell (bass-baritone)
Barbara – Susanna Tudor-Thomas (mezzo-soprano)
Bice – Julie Unwin (soprano)
Giovanni / First Soldier – Mark Luther (tenor)
Matteo – David Newman (tenor)
First Maid – Stephanie Piercey (soprano)
Second Maid – Rebecca Sharp (mezzo-soprano)
Second Soldier – Tom McVeigh (baritone)

Kensington Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 6 May, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra presented an original and imaginative coupling of two early works, a dramatic cantata and an opera, by two composers whose output surely merits further re-appraisal.

The first was the London premiere of Lili Boulanger’s Faust et Hélène, written when the composer was in her late teens. This piece won the Prix de Rome in 1913, some five years before the composer’s untimely death, and it reveals a musical voice of remarkable individuality. Initially, during the orchestral prelude, the music owes some debt Debussy with its complex chromaticism and overall mood, but the vocal writing for the three protagonists is far more “romantic” and grand scale than Debussy would have permitted himself. And once the singers enter the feel is more that of the heady first part of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.

These solo parts were taken admirably in this performance. Ian Caley sang a Faust enraptured with his vision of Helen, making light of the very high range. Nicholas Folwell was an insinuating Méphisto and Susanna Tudor-Thomas gave a suitably cool, enigmatic and enticing vision of Helen – Boulanger wrote some wonderfully soaring music to sing and Tudor-Thomas did so beautifully. Under Russell Keable’s sympathetic baton the KSO seemed to be enjoying itself as much as the audience during this short and intriguing work.

After the interval we moved to skulduggery in renaissance Venice and to the more familiar soundworld of Korngold. Russell Keable and the KSO have done much to promote the music of Korngold over the years and I remember vividly their excellent concert performance of Die Tote Stadt a few years ago. This time it was the turn of the one-act Violanta, an opera written originally as a double-bill with Korngold’s comedy The Ring of Polycrates. Both these pieces were written whilst Korngold was in his late teens – how complete his musical voice was at this age. He had a remarkable ability for depiction of mood and atmosphere. In this opera there is a brooding, unsettling and almost neurotic mood that permeates the entire work, which contrasts with the off-stage and muted carnival sounds of Venice. The big love-duet towards the end of the piece contains some astonishing writing for such a young composer.

The opera’s story is not the most original or coherent, but the music more than compensates for this. For this performance the KSO reassembled many of the singers who sang in Die Tote Stadt. As the troubled Violanta, who has fallen in love with the seducer of her dead sister and who has enticed him to her house for her husband to kill, Tamsin Dives portrayed her emotional dilemma well and responded to the vocal challenges of the part with thrilling tone. This part is a big sing, which was originally taken by Maria Jeritza, the first Ariadne auf Naxos in both versions of Strauss’s opera as well as his first Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten and the first Helen in Die ägyptische Helena). One could hear why she must have relished Violanta.

Ian Caley sang the seducer Alfonso with full-throated voice, only occasionally sounding strained by the cruelly high tessitura. Nicholas Folwell did all he could with the cardboard cut-out role of Violanta’s jealous but weak husband (who ends up stabbing her by mistake).

Keable led the orchestra in an exciting performance full of theatricality, which allowed Korngold’s exotic scoring full reign – the piano, celesta and mandolin adding wonderful colour. Just occasionally he allowed the sound to overwhelm the singers, especially Mark Luther’s rather light-voiced Giovanni. The chorus sang well in their few carnival moments.

However, this performance gave a chance to sample the young Korngold a few years before his famous Die Tote Stadt – and very interesting to see how mature his work already was and how it advanced in the following two or three years when the later opera was written.

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