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George Bizet, Johann Strauss, Jr., Elliot Carter and Ransom Wilson all celebrate their birthdays on this day and the result was a concert lasting nearly three hours in the Joan Hanes Theater of the UNC School of the Arts’ Stevens Center. Pursuant to the wishes often expressed by Chancellor John Mauceri, this performance blended several sectors of the arts school in a rare and interesting reading of Alphonse Daudet’s L’Arlésienne (The Girl from Arles) with the original music by Bizet.
Daudet (doh-DAY) is familiar to Francophiles for his Lettres de mon Moulin (Letters from My Mill), a collection of short stories all narrated in the first person and the source of the story of L’Arlésienne, which Daudet was to develop later into the three-act play for which Bizet wrote his incidental music. The story is a Gothic tale of a son’s suicide upon learning that he was in love with a girl from Arles (who never appears in person) and who is the mistress of another. We view the situation as it unfolds into tragedy through the eyes of his mother, his childhood girlfriend, his retarded brother (the “Innocent”) and tellingly, the wizened old shepherd who has banished himself to the mountains because of his love for the then-married grandmother. He tells the prophetic tale of “Le chèvre de Monsieur Séguin” also from Les lettres de mon Moulin in which, like his brothers before him, the pure white little goat wanders into the mountains and is stalked by the wolf who teases the goat, who vows to live until daylight, only to be gulped down at sunrise. The English adaptation was done by Drama School Dean, Gerald Freeman.
Six students and one faculty member, all from the UNCSA Drama School read the lines of the drama from the edge of the stage while the student orchestra of the School of Music played the hour-long score, conducted by Music Director Ransom Wilson. The UNCSA chorus also sang three or four songs (in French) as part of the incidental music. The UNCSA School of Design and Production provided costumes and minimal lighting. The reduced orchestra was occasionally overpowered by the chorus and had several problems of ensemble and attacks and entrances that just weren’t together. In hind-sight, the huge amount of music on this concert might possibly have strained the allotted rehearsal time.
Balthazar, faculty member Geordie MacMinn, neither looked nor sounded like an old shepherd, but was otherwise expressive. The Innocent, Spencer Trinwith, was excellent in miming his state of mind, but inaudible when the orchestra was playing. Rosa, the Mother, spoken eloquently by Crystal Arnette, gripped the audience when she declared that the child’s life belongs to the mother, who gave life to that child. Mary Irwin as the Grandmother who had banished her shepherd suitor 50 years ago was touching as she welcomed him back and Vivette, Christy Young, looked the part of the sacrificial lamb, betrothed to the unhappy lover who, like the little goat of Mr. Séguier, was to die at dawn. The unhappy and ill-fated lover Frederi, played by Ben Yannette, was a master of volatile mood changes. And the stud, Mitifio, played by (and looking like a stud) Andy Hassell, came across as the most real character as he comes to warn the unsuspecting family that he is the lover of the Arlesienne girl, and will ride off with her in the morning.
The concert opened with centenarian Elliot Carter’s 1940s "Holiday Overture," a raucus tonal excursion layered like complex interstate cloverleaves and concrete jungle forms. Conductor Wilson likened it to “Aaron Copland on LSD.” The brass and percussion were impressive (except for an unfortunate horn attack) while they overpowered the strings in the loud passages. (It was disconcerting to see such an undermanned viola section, but most of the pieces on the program didn’t suffer by this lack of strength.
The third half of the concert (starting at 9:30) was given over to works by the waltz-king, Johann Strauss, Jr. The overture to Die Fledermaus produced the best playing of the evening, with its subtle tempo fluctuations and lilting themes. The familiar "Pizzicato Polka" was also a winner. The waltz, "Accelerationen," was a bit pedantic and predictable but the seldom heard polka, "Im Krapfenwald’l," was fresh and cheerful with its cuckoo, and nightingale and solitary quack at the end. The gallop, "Eljen a Magyar," ("Hail to Hungary") was quick and brilliant, but the closing “Blue Danube” waltz was again a bit dry.
But the small audience was delighted enough to elicit an encore, even after this marathon!