Marie who? The Parlour explains all. Thanks to a witty script by Karen Van Spall and Lucy Esdaile, Marie Recio has become more than just “a footnote” in weighty tomes examining the life of French composer, Hector Berlioz. Fantastique! lived up to its title in being a thoroughly satisfying way to celebrate France’s National Day, as well as being a miraculously well-timed narrow escape from Melbourne’s Lockdown Number 5.
The physical set-up and resonant acoustic of fortyfivedownstairs favours productions such as Fantastique!. An arc of tiered seating created a feeling of intimacy as Melanie Hillman in the persona of opera singer Marie Recio confided certain unfamiliar details concerning her husband’s life. As the second wife of the great man, she was witness to some his less appealing characteristics and did not hesitate to spill the beans. Hillman made an appealing Marie, managing to keep us on side, even when delivering her most bitchy remarks, by projecting level-headed confidence and a wry sense of humour. Hillman’s clear, well-modulated voice ensured that every word was audible, while an attractive but serious dark grey dress with its striking wide scarlet belt seemed to reflect her character. We shared her indignation at being overlooked by history and overshadowed by Berlioz’ first wife, the celebrated Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson.
At the beginning of the performance, pianist Coady Green was seated at the small period table perusing a score among a pile of books before retreating to the grand piano at the back of the performance area as Hillman took his place. Interspersed between readings from books, letters and journal entries, baritone Adam Miller and mezzo-soprano Karen Van Spall sang a selection of songs by Berlioz and composers relevant to his life. Coady Green not only accompanied the singers with a remarkable degree of sensitivity, but also impressed with pianistic virtuosity in Liszt’s “L’idée fixe (Andante amoroso d’après une mélodie de Berlioz)”, based on Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.
Adam Miller launched the vocal component with L’Origine de la harpe, one of Berlioz’ Neuf Mélodies with text by his friend Thomas Gounet translated from Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies. It was a welcome opportunity to hear this and, later, Le coucher du soleil as these Irish songs are seldom performed. Although Miller’s French pronunciation was alarmingly approximate at times, he sang with conviction, his baritone vibrant, rich and substantial. In terms of language, he was much more comfortable in Liszt’s Du bist wie eine blume and Schumann’s Widmung; the latter in particular was a beautiful performance that showed Miller’s talents to best advantage. Despite a couple of taxing high notes in Wagner’s Les Deux Grenadiers, it was an excellent choice for this program. The connection between the two composers was apparent, and Wagner’s powerfully dramatic and moving song incorporates the tune of the Marseillaise in the final verses. It also provided another occasion for Marie to show her dislike of Wagner and his misogynistic tendencies.
More familiar repertoire was chosen by Karen Van Spall. She began with La mort d’Ophélie – a tribute to one of Berlioz’ enduring passions: Shakespeare. A haunting song, she sang with warm tone, emotionally sensitive to the text and wonderfully supported by Coady Green. Unsurprisingly, her remaining four songs came from one of Berlioz’ most popular works, Les nuits d’été, including one of the most transcendent of all songs, Le Spectre de la Rose. Not only was Van Spall’s French pronunciation accurate, we could see that she understood every word – plus she had the vocal wherewithal to give every sentiment full expression. Her transition from resonant unforced lower notes of “ni De Profundis” to the ecstasy of “j’arrive du paradis” was a highlight; she radiated such emotion that you could almost smell the ghostly perfume.
So, we learned a great deal about Berlioz’ life and loves – including his addiction to the brown fairy (opium) to complement the popular obsession with the green one, and his obsessive infatuation with an “older” eighteen-year-old woman when he was twelve. Poor old Marie didn’t stand a chance even though she stuck by him for twenty years; the spell of Théophile Gautier’s poems and his adolescent passions had cast their spell over his Romantic soul when it came to summer nights. Being disinterred so that Harriet Smithson could be buried on top of her was the final insult to her memory.
In the depths of a Melbourne winter, “Fantastique!”, followed by joining Président Macron in the official car (virtually of course) to watch the next stage of the Tour de France, felt like the perfect way to celebrate French culture.
Heather Leviston reviewed Fantastique! The Life and Loves of Hector Berlioz presented by The Parlour at fortyfivedownstairs on July 14, 2021.