A Poet’s Love

Writing in Opera’s Second Death, Slavoj Zizek claims that opera served a purpose at one point, before Freud & the invention of psychotherapy.  Watching “A Poet‘s Love”, tonight’s concert from Talisker Players & baritone Alexander Dobson , I had parallel thoughts about poetry and the evolution of culture.

At one time poets may have played a key role in exploring and articulating the nature of love.  As I type this I’m listening to Dana Andrews interrogate the various suspects in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) on TCM at roughly 11 pm, a film where we watch not a poet’s love, but instead a detective’s love articulated, the love of a pragmatic seeker for truth.  As cultures change sophistication demands new ways to tell the same story.  The romantic sensibility as articulated in the time of Heine or Schumann is delicate & naive compared to the film I’m over-hearing.  Just as Zizek said opera died when we had a new way of achieving the same therapeutic objectives –via psychotherapy rather than dying divas–so too, I suspect, with poetry.  While Heine and his brethren were once fearless explorers on the unarticulated frontiers of our culture, we no longer see poets as authorities on love, even if their works are wonderful relics from a time when they took the first bold steps onto that frontier.  And so we sit through concerts, examining the anatomy of the human heart, via string ensemble & vocalist.

Talisker’s program was a strenuous test for Dobson, who sang a great deal tonight:

  • John Beckwith’s “Love Lines”, a diverse assortment of arranged songs reframed and re-thought for baritone & string quartet
  • Gabriel Faure’s “La Bonne Chanson” for baritone, string quintet & piano
  • Alexander Rapoport’s “Fragments of Verlaine” for baritone and string quintet
  • Robert Schumann‘s “Dichterliebe” in a recent arrangement by Harold Birtson for baritone & string quartet

The four very different compositions called for four different approaches, four different ways of signifying love for Dobson & the Talisker Players.  To begin, Beckwith sampled other composers, making something like a quilt or a collage of their diverse styles, from Handel to Gershwin, sewed together, although it was no more troubling than a medley on the radio, given that there was no real sense of a connection among the items, except their proximity to one another on the program. But don’t misunderstand this for censure, i quite liked it.  There were places where Beckwith made some wonderfully playful effects, boldly deconstructing the Handel into discreet sounds.  It managed to be new yet old at the same time.

It was a special pleasure to hear Dobson’s suave baritone again, particularly in the warm acoustic of Trinity St Paul’s Centre.  In “La Bonne Chanson” we encounter an impossible poetic ideal from Paul Verlaine, coming to stunning fruition nonetheless via Faure’s setting.  Dobson gave a very nuanced reading, sometimes soaring to sweet pianissimo high notes, sometimes boldly taking the stage in fearless declamations.

I was surprised that the most satisfactory of the four should be the composition from Alexander Rapoport, a very complementary piece to hear following “La Bonne Chanson”.  Where the Faure is already somewhat abstracted in its declarations of love,  Rapoport’s piece feels like a series of fragments, abstracted from another time or another life.  Dobson felt like a ghost witnessing moments from his own life, gently reminiscing over shards of experience that abruptly end.  This is actually wonderfully apt for a symbolist such as Verlaine, writing in a time known for fragments.   I’m very impressed both with the composition & with Dobson’s masterful handling of the work.

Baritone Alexander Dobson (Photo credit Jimmy Song.)

Finally we heard the work that likely gave the title to the proceeding, namely “Dichterliebe” or “a Poet’s Love” presented in a recent arrangement for string quartet.  While it’s always nice to shine new light on a familiar work, I didn’t find this arrangement especially illuminating, charming as some passages actually were.  In places the four string players had less oomph than a piano, leaving Dobson with the challenge of making drama himself.  It’s pretty, but I don’t think it does much for either Heine or Schumann, who indeed regularly pokes his head into the action in the piano commentaries, particularly the two long interludes where he seems to comment: passages that simply didn’t fly in the new version.  Dobson was again stellar, on a night when he was singing for most of a program that ran over two hours.

As usual Talisker punctuated each musical item with a dramatic reading, tonight from  Stewart Arnott.  I think one reason I was thinking these thoughts about the obsolescence of poetry may have been because I saw literary theorist Linda Hutcheon sitting nearby.  I was thinking back to one of my first lessons about love, from that great amorist Jacqueline Susanne, author of Valley of the Dolls or as David Berg of Mad Magazine called her “Jackpot Susanne”.  No wonder i’m such a mess, using trashy novels to learn about life. What is love, and who really knows it? At one time poets were our teachers to answer such questions.  Of the four treatments, Beckwith’s deconstructive comedy felt the most fresh, while the cool distance of Faure, and the hyper romance of Schumann don’t resemble any love I’ve known or seen.  I found Rapoport’s druggy glimpses of something recollected through a fog the most intense, the most genuine.

I am grateful that Talisker keeps programming music & text in such a way so as to provoke my thoughts & feelings.  I look forward to seeing where they take us next year, but in the meantime there’s one more performance of this program to come Wednesday May 28th at 8:00 pm.

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