Having spent (squandered, some might argue) most of its season so far in routine explorations of the familiar masterworks of Central and Eastern Europe, the L.A. Philharmonic made an abrupt turn in its programming this past weekend. The predominant fragrance in the hall this time was unmistakably, and agreeably, French.
That applied even to Englishman Benjamin Britten, whose settings of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Les Illuminations” (gorgeously sung by American soprano Sylvia McNair) may indeed have been the most indigenously French item on the program. Major interest, however, centered on the complete performance of Claude Debussy’s “Le martyre de Saint Sebastien,” whose 65-plus minutes sprawled over the second half of the program. While the work is sometimes played as a 15-minute suite of orchestral excerpts, performances of the complete work — with a narrator singing the words of the martyred Sebastian and three female singers suggesting both celestial and mundane voices — are rare.
As a concert piece, Debussy’s score has been pieced together from his 1911 score for Gabriele d’Annunzio’s five-act, five-hour play, a flamboyant, speculative (and often just plain highfalutin) conflation of various musical styles — none of which resembles in any way Debussy’s familiar language of clouds, shifting colors and exotic dabs. The scheme here is more that of stained glass in bright sunshine: assertive, strong colors, tending toward the dark side; vast sound panoramas for brass and chorus, summoning painful memories now and then of such lesser masters as Cesar Franck.
There are deep purple patches in Debussy’s “Sebastien,” most of which also turn up in the familiar short suite. The Philharmonic performance boasted the services of designer-editor-director Juha Hemanus, who inserted enough narrative from d’Annunzio’s play to provide continuity, and devised a staging in which the marvelous McNair — representing celestial voices and the soul of the murdered Sebastian — sat atop the orchestra in a gown that turned blinding, virginal white for her solos.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has proved his affinity for Debussy’s music many times over, in concert and on discs, conducted bravely and elegantly; blame for the lead-balloon aspect of the performance is not his. “Sebastien” has a quality one doesn’t expect to encounter in Debussy: It is hopelessly, blatantly dull.