National Philharmonic performs Debussy’s ‘Le martyre de Saint Sebastien’

May 20, 2012

It is a shame that Washingtonians had to wait for the sesquicentennial of Claude Debussy’s birth to hear a local concert of the composer’s incidental music for the mystery play “Le martyre de Saint Sebastien.” Still, at the final performance of the National Philharmonic’s season on Saturday night, the half-filled hall at Strathmore made it easy to see why the ensemble does not often stray from its menu of romantic concertos, classical symphonies and overdone oratorios.

Debussy completed the score on a rushed schedule in 1911, leaving some of the orchestration to his friend Andre Caplet. While not his best work, it has some evocative sounds. The National Philharmonic and Chorale, under conductor Stan Engebretson, packed quite a wallop at the climaxes, but some of the finer details were smudged. Soprano Audrey Luna was a celestial presence, floating the high notes of the Virgin Mary’s aria in the second part and as the soul of Saint Sebastian singing from heaven. Rosa Lamoreaux was strong and confident on the other soprano part and read the French narration of the story with admirable pronunciation.

Alas, there was no Ida Rubinstein impersonator to act out the more outrageous parts of the tale. The infamous dancer and actress inspired poet Gabriele d’Annunzio to create this unusual work for her: That the role of the Catholic martyr was given to a Jewish lesbian scandalized the archbishop of Paris, especially when Rubinstein’s Sebastian perished while almost nude and tied to a stake, sighing with pleasure at each arrow’s piercing.

Without the controversial visual element, the work is only a series of pretty, occasionally exotic sonic backdrops. A prosaic narration, delivered by Victoria Gau (replacing Eliot Pfanstiehl), was a poor substitute, a problem compounded by the incomplete translation inserted in the program.

Downey is a freelance writer.


Conductor Stan Engebretson and his players packed quite a wallop at the climaxes of the Debussy score. (Jerry Fernandez/Courtesy of National Philharmonic)
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