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High Romance: A Rediscovered Lyrical Oratorio

San Francisco
Davies Symphony Hall
02/19/2005 -  
Robert Schumann: Das Paradies und die Peri
Laura Aikin (The Peri), Kristine Jepson (The Angel, Narrator), Christoph Prégardien (Narrator), William Dazeley (Gazna/The Man), Jane Archibald (The Maiden/A Peri), Ronit Widmann-Levy (A Peri), Sonia Gariaeff (A Peri), Catherine Cook (A Peri)
San Francisco Symphony and Chorus
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)

In the midst of composing Das Paradies und die Peri, Schumann wrote in a letter, “At the moment I’m involved in a large project, the largest I’ve yet undertaken—it’s not an opera—I believe it is well-nigh a new genre for the concert hall.” This lyrical composition for orchestra, soloists, and a large mixed chorus was first performed later that same year. The premier at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on December 9, 1843, also marked Schumann’s debut as a conductor. The critics raved. The success of the piece throughout Europe and America ultimately cemented Schumann’s international fame. Over the next five years it was performed throughout Germany, and in Utrecht, Amsterdam, Prague, Riga, Zurich, and finally in 1848 at the American Musical Institute in New York City. Schumann referred to it as “an oratorio for happy people” and it became a concert staple until the end of the 19th century, enjoying fifty performances during the composer’s lifetime.

The libretto for Paradise and the Peri is based on an excerpt from a German translation of the long lyric poem Lalla Rookh, published in 1817 to great acclaim by the Irish romantic poet, Thomas Moore. Perhaps justly disregarded by modern readers, Moore was considered an equal to Keats in his time. His work was immensely popular and widely translated, and the narrative style of Lalla Rookh recalls Keat’s Endymion. The principal theme is redemption after death and its foundations are Christian. But the approach to religion is not liturgical, but exotic and spiritual.

Paradise and the Peri is one of four fable-like tales that unfold within the framework of a larger narrative poem, something like Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights. A Peri is the offspring of a fallen angel and a mortal, and as such is not allowed to pass through the gates of Paradise at the moment of death. Our story recounts her quest to earn passage into heaven. She must procure a gift for the Angels that will be great enough to redeem the sin of her mixed birth. Her exotic journeys to India, Egypt and Syria are both lyrical and oriental, as are her gifts: the last drop of blood from a vanquished hero, the sigh of a dying lover, and the tears of an aged repentant criminal. Like Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot, she is challenged three times before achieving success.

As ultra-romantic vocal and orchestral music, Paradise and the Peri has much in common with Wagner. But the piece is purely poetic musical narrative, not a drama at all. And in human terms, there is not much at risk in this story, not much to lose. We are not drawn in to care intensely about the characters or the conflict. There is none of the fear and rage of the Last Judgment or Dante’s Inferno. The emotions evoked are abstract, moving from a celestial sadness to joy and celebration. The passions are subtle, like the heavenly image of “a pearl on a milk white brow” in Dante’s Paradiso.
The ethereal, fable-like quality of the libretto is matched perfectly by Schumann’s extraordinary flawless transitions that move from one passage to the next seamlessly, often without breaks or codas.

This San Francisco performance conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, music director of the Hamburg State Opera and Philharmonic and conductor designate for the Netherlands Opera, was a resounding success. Metzmacher has a firm grasp of this rare masterpiece. His command of the orchestra was clear and precise, infused with silken energy. The chorus, prepared by Director Vance George, was muscular and precise, nimble, athletic and sublime. The soloists were also first-rate, led by Laura Aikin, of the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, as the Peri. Aikin recently made an impression at the San Francisco Opera as the Angel in an acclaimed production of Messaien’s Saint Francois D’Assise. Kristine Jepson, who performs frequently at the Met, stood out as the Angel and Narrator. Christoph Prégardien and William Dazeley also performed admirably.

The audience was packed, apparently filled with local choristers and connoisseurs of vocal music. The ovation was enthusiastic and long. Clearly, Schumann’s ambitious choral masterpiece deserves to be performed more often.

Thomas Aujero Small



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