BWW Review: Julia Migenes Lovingly Shares DEBUSSY: HIS LETTERS AND MUSIC at the Odyssey Theatre
Previously seen at the Odyssey in Diva on the Verge (2011), Franz Schubert: His Letters and Music (2009) and Julia Migenes Sings Kurt Weill (2015), celebrated soprano Julia Migenes has returned to L.A. with the world premiere of DEBUSSY: HIS LETTERS AND MUSIC, her newest musical portrait of legendary French composer Claude Debussy. Her exploration of his life - his youth, his determination to find his own musical path while battling the more conservative musical world, and his great wit - begins with his actual letters, then integrates his music. Accompanied on piano by Manuel Arellano, currently a collaborative pianist and vocal coach at El Camino College whose fingers literally fly over the keys, the show is directed by Academy Award-nominated director Peter Medak who allows Ms. Migenes to shine brilliantly whether she is reading, singing, or interacting with the audience.
A musical protégé in her own right much like Claude Debussy, Julia Migenes grew up in New York City, where, as a teenager, she was chosen to sing in Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. She then starred as Hodel, opposite Zero Mostel, in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. International stardom has followed her throughout her life, so do not miss this chance to see her in such an intimate setting at the Odyssey, during which the audience often interacts with her both during the show and at the meet-and-greet afterwards.
"I first heard Debussy's 'Clair de Lune' when I was around seven years old," says Migenes. "When I heard just the first four notes, I got a knot in my throat and tears in my eyes; his music touched me that deeply. As a teen, I started singing his 'ariettes oubliées.' They may have been called 'little forgotten arias,' but I simply could never forget them." And thanks to her love of Debussy's tremendous attachment to the sea, each of her musical renditions was more beautiful than the last.
Starting the show by appearing out of the dark, seated on the piano with copies of Debussy's letters in her hands, Ms. Migenes informs the audience of the great composer's life. Embracing nontraditional scales and tonal structures, Claude Debussy is one of the most highly regarded composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is seen as the founder of musical impressionism. He was born into a poor family in France in 1862, but his obvious gift at the piano sent him to the Paris Conservatory at age 11, a most remarkable accomplishment. At age 22, he won the Prix de Rome, which financed two years of further musical study in the Italian capital. But he missed Paris and moved back to embark on his own way, and over the following 10 years, he became the leading figure in French music.
Throughout the show, much of which takes place during World War I while Paris was being bombed by the German air force and Debussy suffered greatly from the colon cancer to which he succumbed at the age of 55, Ms. Migenes reads letters he wrote to friends and his beloved daughter "Chou-Chou" in which he describes his music as well as his bitter suffering. It amazes me how long he was able to survive his medical battle in a time when cancer treatment was so primitive. It is that same strong will which allowed Debussy to depart from the traditional music establishment in which he trained and be able to create music as he heard it during the years when the great French Impressionists were also creating a new free-flowing art form.
Along the way, stories are shared about Debussy's patrons, mistresses and wives, the stuff of which French culture is known. For a very poor boy, his ascent to musical stardom was never assured and yet he managed to find his way thanks to his talent and ability to surround himself with those who appreciated his skill and great conversational wit who could finance his dream of creating the music he heard as a child as he spent hours staring at the sea.
While I enjoyed learning about the composer through his letters, I do wish Ms. Migenes would sing more during the show which includes 23 compositions by Debussy and fellow composers Chopin, Wagner, Rossini, Bach, and Czerny, all of whom he admired. Just a note - with Debussy's music so soft and soothing, I must warn you there are times when you may be lulled to sleep during the performance. So be sure to bring someone with you who can gently rouse you from your slumber so you do not miss a moment of this mesmerizing show!
Performances of DEBUSSY: HIS LETTERS AND MUSIC take place through March 11 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Beth Hogan produces for Odyssey Theatre Ensemble located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in West L.A., 90025. All tickets are $35 and may be ordered by calling (310) 477-2055 or online at www.OdysseyTheatre.com.
Photo credit: Enci Box