Camille Claudel

The Alexander String Quartet celebrated their 30th anniversary by sharing the limelight with others- a trait that probably plays no small part in their longevity as a performing ensemble. Long considered something of a "house band" for San Francisco Performances and San Francisco State University, they marked the occasion at a concert last night at the Herbst Theater which was simply brilliant. In the program notes Jake Heggie, composer of Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick among other works, relates the story of how SF Performances' Ruth Felt asked him about composing a piece to mark the quartet's upcoming anniversary and how he then managed to involve mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and librettist Gene Scheer in the creation of a song cycle based on the story of Camille Claudel, about whom Heggie has been interested in creating an opera.

That was a fortuitous bit of networking, judging by last night's resulting program.

It began with Heggie accompanying DiDonato in Reynaldo Hahn's Venezia song cycle, which I heard Christopher Maltman perform just two weeks ago in the same theater. My thoughts on Maltman's recital were mixed, perhaps unenthusiastic, for a performer of obvious vocal abilities and for awhile I wondered if I had been unduly critical of the performance. DiDonato's performance re-assured me I was not- in fact after watching and hearing her sing the same material I think I may have been more generous to Maltman than his performance merited. DiDonato was completely engaged, continuously making eye-contact with seemingly everyone in the house from the moment she began, performing each song with a unique and distinct character, alternating between tenderness in one to bright sass in another. And her voice? Splendid. The last long, lovely legato note of "La Primavera" was gorgeous. Heggie looked like he enjoyed every moment of accompanying her, but more than that I can't say about his performance because DiDonato was so mesmerizing to watch and hear all I really noticed was his ear-to-grin at the conclusion of each song. There's a reason it's recently been said she's at the apex of her career and last night was evidence of it.

Then the Alexanders came onstage to perform Debussy's Sting Quartet in G minor. On paper this seemed like almost too-safe of a choice for the occasion, but they managed to uncover new tones within the familiar territory and delivered an impressively thoughtful performance. Cellist Sandy Wilson brought the morose tone of the first movement to the forefront and it colored everything in its wake. Violist Paul Yarbrough picked up the thread from Wilson in the second movement, adding a quizzical element, and the violins of Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz performed the pizzicato ending with exceptional finesse.

As a unit, they seemed intent to remove the "impressionist" sheen off the composer's reputation, especially in the Scherzo, which sounded uncharacteristically Romantic, and the fourth sounded almost Modernist. But every movement was performed with its own distinct emotional current, with the players cognizant of the themes occurring in each, yet treating each one as a unique entity. It's also the only time I've ever heard it where parts reminded me more than just a little of the late Beethoven quartets.

L to R: Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz, Jake Heggie, Joyce DiDonato, Paul Yarbrough, Sandy Wilson. Photo by Brian Byrne.

While the first half of the concert had been quite good to this point, what followed was truly exceptional. DiDonato and the Alexanders returned, with DiDonato placed in the center of the strings. Camille Claudel: Into the Fire is a song cycle which takes place on the day the title character is taken away to an asylum.  However, it feels much larger than that due to the brilliance of Gene Scheer's lyrics, which manage to convey a complete character arc in just six songs spread over thirty-five minutes (the seven songs include an instrumental). Each song title refers to a sculpture by Claudel (yes, she was a real person) except the last one, which is an epilogue to what's come before.

The devotion to inhabiting the lyrics she exhibited in the Venezia song cycle turned out to be just an appetizer compared to the fully developed character DiDonato brought to Camille Claudel. It made me long to see this work developed into a full-length opera as a vehicle for her.  Beginning with "Rodin," who was Claudel's lover and perhaps artistic rival, Heggie and Scheer have created a portrayal of a woman undone by her lover's abandonment and its subsequent destruction of her mind and soul. "La Valse" and "Shakuntala" carry the narrative forward, the first as lament and the second turning into a mini "mad scene" with an acapella ending which was chilling.

"La Petite Chatelaine" has Claudel turning the anger and rage of "La Valse" upon herself, her own identity cracking under the weight of remorse for the child she aborted at Rodin's request. The song is imbued with conflicted penitence, and while it's impressive on many levels, perhaps its most amazing quality is how the pleas of Claudel over her lost child never become maudlin. Instead, a moment of distinct discomfort is felt through the audience- as if we're complicit in the tragedy by being observers of the result.

Musically, "The Gossips" take the work to a heightened level of intensity as rivulets of notes descend like so many false accusations against Claudel's resigned admissions of "I know. I know." The drops keep falling, and the song closes with a sense of irretrievable loss.

Heggie wisely takes a step back emotionally at this point with an instrumental, "L'age Mur (Maturity)," a fugue begun by the viola, followed by cello, then the violins, evolving into one of the most memorable themes I've heard from a contemporary composer. The theme returns in full at the conclusion of the final song, "Epilogue: Jessie Liscomb visits Camille Claudel, Montevergues Asylum, 1929," which begins with a sprightly dance containing fragments of the theme weaving underneath. The lyrics of the song, and DiDonato's singing of them, are the inevitable conclusion of all that's come before as Claudel, now old and alone, happily receives a visit by an old friend which gives her an opportunity to reminisce, remember, and finally, to regret and submit.

Fantastic. Now can someone please commission an entire opera of this brilliant beginning?

Heggie, DiDonato and the Alexanders returned for an encore of Richard Strauss' "Morgen"- beautifully performed, but also a nice touch given that Heggie noted in the program how he remembered the superb performance of the piece given by this same quartet when he saw them perform for the first time twenty years ago.