A new lyric work for soprano, chorus and orchestra by Gian Carlo Menotti -- commissioned by the Carmelite Order on the 400th birthday of Saint Teresa -- was premiered last night at St. Matthew's Cathedral, and it is a beauty.
Menotti has called it a cantata, but it sounds more like an aria of about 15 minutes with a short a cappella prologue, followed by eight highly varied verses. The text is "Vivo sin vivir en mi," an expressionist devotional poem by Saint Teresa herself; Saint Teresa founded the Carmelites, in a return to austerity in religious orders. She states the subject in her prologue: "I live without living in myself; and in such a way I hope; I die because I do not die." That last line is repeated at the end of each of the subsequent verses.
Menotti's broad, soaring melodies have an expressive fervor that this listener has not heard in any of his new works for some time. This is, for instance, several cuts above the well-crafted, but strictly formula music of "A Bride From Pluto," the children's opera he wrote for the Kennedy Center last spring.
The basic melodic kernel is a sumptuous seven-note phrase that begins the first verse and shows up in one form or another in each verse. The music is set mostly in the upper registers of the soprano voice, with many soft, floating high notes. It is unabashedly romantic, and could easily pass for something out of late 19th-century France or Italy. There's none of that avant-garde playing around with the notes of the diatonic scale that Debussy would come along and impose. But neither should the music be coupled with the newly touted neo-romantic trend. After all, when at his best, Menotti has been writing in this style for 50 years.
The singing was exceptional. The soprano was Marvis Martin, who will be singing at the Met this season. A person sitting near this listener compared the voice to Leontyne Price's, a comparison so formidable that it might be an onus for a young singer to bear. But it is true that Martin's high tones have some of the resonance that make the sound of Price's voice so extraordinary. Whether it is anything like that big a voice was impossible to judge in the cavernous acoustics, or lack thereof, of the cathedral. There is no question, though, that Martin is a singer of promise.
The event was Catholic University's annual chancellor's concert, and Robert Ricks conducted the university orchestra and chorus. Menotti's orchestral tapestry is quite rich, and the students played competently. The chorus comes in only at the end, in a hymn-like resolution.
Menotti was present and received a considerable ovation.
One testimony to the quality of the new work is that it did not suffer by comparison with what followed, the final scenes of Poulenc's opera, "Dialogue of the Carmelites," in which a group of 18th-century French nuns go to their deaths in the Revolution. The singers, orchestra and chorus handled the heart-rending music with assurance.
Earlier, there was a humdrum performance of Haydn's "Theresienmesse."