Americans in Paris! Super-mezzo Joyce DiDonato was in town performing Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, a song cycle by American composer Jake Heggie, composed in 2012.

It was Yankee takeover night at Radio France’s fabulous Seine-side concert hall, one of Paris’ many epicentres of French culture. What a nerve. An all American playbill, kicking off with Leonard Bernstein’s Candide overture, followed by Claudel. Short interval, then on to John Adams’ Harmoniliehre. The cheek of those Rosbifs transatlantiques!

I had hoofed it to Paris for the Claudel. If Joyce DiDonato was making the trip for this one-off performance radio broadcast it was sure to be “worth a journey”. Not wrong. The concert hall was a jam-packed sell-out. I seemed to be the only non-Parisian. We were getting down to serious business. The orchestra sported white tie ensembles or evening gowns. The concert was not televised.  

Why had Heggie written Camille Claudel: Into the Fire at all? Composed in 2012, this was, bizarrely, the work’s first outing in Paris. It’s all about the sculptor Camille Claudel and her relationship with the famous Auguste Rodin. She was his unrecognised muse and unacknowledged lover.

Heggie adores story telling. He gets better and better at it. His recent opera version of It’s a Wonderful Life captured hearts at London’s ENO in December last year. He had become haunted by the French film, Camille Claudel, first seen in 1989. So haunted by the sculptor’s plight, he wrote the song cycle twenty three years later.

This summoning of Claudel from the shadows, in her homeland, was missionary work. And when DiDonato sniffs a mission these days she will span any distance, traverse oceans, even slum it in First Class airport lounges, to track it to its lair.

Her hugely successful Eden song cycle, which she toured recently to international acclaim, is an exemplar of the medium the mezzo uses to channel her hyper enthusiasm for causes to audiences.

She brings that commitment to opera roles, too. Anyone who saw her 2022 portrayal of Irene, the doughty freedom fighter, in Handel’s Theodora at London’s Covent Garden, or Virginia Woolf in the New York Met’s recent Kevin Puts opera, The Hours, will understand.

Radio France’s Maison de la radio, on the north side of the Seine, in full sight of the Eiffel Tower, was built in 2014. It is humongous, matching the Royal Albert Hall in scale. No one is rude enough to mention the cost to the taxpayer. Unlike Britain’s staggering HS2 publicly funded, going nowhere in particular projet-de-folie, it works.  

I’m sure there are grateful, rollicking paysans in France Profonde, who cluster round their transistors of a dark evening to hear the wondrous outpourings of their Orchestre National de France, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Choeur de Radio France, and Maîtrise de Radio France, blessing the day with simple gratitude that their taxes were so well spent. The ticket prices in Gay Paree are peanuts, too.

Maestro of the National Orchestre de France was Pierre Bleuse. He is a monumental public project, too. Currently the conductor is in hirsute, “magnifique” mode. The baldy look has gone. Tall, imposing, swept back, long, dark hair, a specially tailored black Batman jacket with curious folds to accommodate flailing arms, Charles I beard and two needle sharp waxed moustache-missiles aimed east and west, make him instantly recognisable. He is the D’Artagnan of the French classical music scene.

His baton was a flashing rapier. He dispatched the Candide summarily. His first violinist Nathan Mierdi, appointed earlier this year, and DiDonato were his fellow musketeers for the following song cycle. As Alexandre Dumas might have said, “All for one, and one for all”. As DiDonato stepped almost diffidently up to the podium, a vision in subtly pale green and blue chiffon, all fell expectantly silent. There followed a masterclass in empathetic interpretation. The beautiful delivery of the heart wrenching tale being told took us deep into Claudel’s tragedy. The audience exploded in appreciation. DiDonato was called back to the podium three times. The Bleuse moustache took on a life of its own.

Heggie is a song cycle junkie. I have tracked down over twenty, ranging from Before the Storm in 1999, to What I Miss the Most, 2021. But, I think Camille Claudel is in a league of its own. It’s impossible to avoid comparisons with Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs in its heart-stopping narration of a personal tragedy. Heggie is at his melodic best. And who better to screw the last ounce of emotion from a narrative work than DiDonato.

Camille Claudel – 1864 – 1943 is a cause. Which is what I am sure attracted DiDonato, a dogged fighter for causes once they catch her eye. She has performed the work often since 2012, but rarely with a full orchestra.

An artistic genius in her own right, Claudel was in thrall to Auguste Rodin, her mentor, teacher and lover. Vulgarly described as “Rodin’s Mistress”, Rodin’s whore and “Rodin’s muse”, Claudel was, typically for the time, rarely seen for what she was. Herself. A highly talented sculptress.

Her rackety relationship with Rodin eventually led to a mental asylum. She destroyed most of her work. What remains speaks to her talent. Heggie’s song cycle is both the history of her hellish life and, at last, a fitting recognition of her artistic skills. What a beautiful, sharply observant epitaph he has written. A wrong is being righted.

There are seven chapters in this story.

Rodin – The lovers’ tortured relationship:

“In the clay,

I search with my fingers,

To uncover something new,

Rodin! Rodin!”

La Valse – Claudel’s unrequited longing:

“Allow me to forget,

That every dance of love,

Is mingled with regret.”

Shakuntala! – The sad, broken marital promise of the Ardi Prava:

“Abandoned and ignored,

Before I was denied,

All that I adored,

I did not know who I was.”

La Petite Châtelaine – The searing denial of the two children the couple kept secret. Rodin never lived with Claudel:

“Now I’m forever alone,

With my children of stone,

La petite châtelaine”.

The Gossips – The intolerable burden of being laughed at behind her back, which eventually drove Claudel mad:

“People at a table listen to a prayer,

Three men on a high cart laugh and go to mass,

A woman crouches on a bench and cries all alone”.

L’âge Mûr – Instrumental interlude, memorialising a Camille sculpture commissioned by the French government in 1895, but cancelled before it was finished in 1899.

Epilogue – Jessie Lipscomb, the English sculptress, visits Claudel in Montedevergues Asylum:

“Do you remember our studio in Paris? Everything moving.

Two young women, so many ideas. Look at me now.

A photograph? Just me and you? I understand. I must be very still,

Thank you for remembering me.”

Those last, bathetic, words, fading to silence, in a dying musical phrase perfectly delivered by DiDonato in total control of the difficult quiet bits as always, are probably a fitter, lasting tribute one hundred years on, than Camille Claudel, facing lonely death in her asylum, ever expected. Thanks to Heggie, Bleuse and DiDonato she has at last been remembered in her home. Paris.