Monday, April 29, 2013

World Premiere: Claude – Opéra de Lyon

Claude – Opera in one act (World Premiere) 
Music by Thierry Escaich 
Libretto by Robert Badinter 

The man turned assassin under certain circumstances, 
if differently influenced would have served his country well.

The plot for this new opera is taken from Victor Hugo’s short story Claude Gueux (1834), which was based on actual events. The story expresses Hugo's early thoughts on social injustice. Thirty years later he fleshed out this theme in his novel Les Misérables, and Jean Valjean can be seen as a latter day Claude. While Les Miserables offers a sense of redemption, the opera Claude basically just lays out the events. Only Hugo’s commentary, sung as a choral backdrop throughout the opera, offers any moral. It’s a harsh and brittle opera, and well worth seeing.

The recording that’s available at is sung in French and has French subtitles. Because my French skills are slightly below survivor level, I decided to read (a so-so translation of) the original story first. It helped a lot, as some of the dialog in the opera is taken directly from the book. There are some minor differences. In Hugo’s version, Claude has stolen bread to feed his family. In the opera, he is a weaver who is put out of work by automated looms and ends up being arrested at the barricades. 

Look at Claude Gueux. An intelligent and most noble-hearted man, 
placed in the midst of evil surroundings, he turned thief.

Director Olivier Py uses machinery, in particular a wheel, and constant, relentless motion as the primary image of inhumanity here.  The set and the cast are in constant motion, as is the music. While the action is realistic, it’s frequently accompanied by stylized activities. Also the main unit of the set, representing the prison, and containing nine cells on one side, is always moved by the prisoners. In this world the machines are more important than people. 

Claude is good and sensitive man, and is respected by the other prisoners, who rally around him. The Prison Director resents Claude as a man and for his status among the others, and singles him out for verbal, emotional, and physical abuse.

Claude bonds with another prisoner, Albin, who shares bread with him. The Prison Director separates them—because he can, and because he knows it will demoralize them. Claude continually asks (always politely and more pitifully later) where they have sent Albin. “Why did you move him?” “Because I did. My decisions are final.” The director and his guards take pleasure in inflicting pain and humiliation. They abuse Claude and the other prisoners physically, mentally, and emotionally and make sure the men are always hungry—physically, emotionally. 

Then give to those people who work, and who suffer here, 
the hope of a different world to come, and they will go on patiently...

The abuse finally drives Claude over the edge—all hope is gone. Claude calmly plans to murder the Director then kill himself. He shares this plan with his comrades, and they voice their support. The murder is successful, but Claude's suicide is not. He is (barely) revived, then tried and sentenced to death. 

Claude is to die, and ironically he is finally given a large loaf of bread. A ballerina appears, and she represents…his wife? His daughter? His soul. As the crowd hurries to witness his execution they repeatedly trample the dancer. After the final narration, she resumes her dance. Claude dies. Claude smiles, finally at peace in that “different world to come.”

Then give the people all encouragement; improve the masses, 
enlighten them, guard their morals, make them useful, 
and to such heads as those you will not require to use cold steel.

The music supports and drives the drama forward. There’s nothing that resembles an aria here, although there are lyrical, melodic elements, particularly in the off-stage children’s voices. Otherwise the vocal lines move between parlando and brief lyrical snippets of melody; the opera is much like Debussy and Janacek in its word setting. The musical language is dissonant and non-tonal, but accessible. The large orchestra includes a massive percussion section, plus piano, organ, and accordion. Like the stage action and scenery, the music is always in motion, supporting the action, and evoking the machinery that dehumanizes.

Baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou paints a sympathetic portrait of Claude and makes the most of the melodies he is given. He has a warm lyrical voice, and I would enjoy hearing him in some of the standard repertoire. Albin is sung by counter-tenor Rodrigo Ferreira; his voice is initially startling, but it blends and contrasts nicely with Claude's and it makes his character more vulnerable. 

The Prison Director is Jean-Philippe LaFont, who is not very pleasant to listen to, but then again his is not a pleasant character; the singer revels in this Scarpia-esque role. Tenors Remy Mathieu and Philip Sheffield double as sympathetic narrators and sadistic prison guards. Both are vocally and dramatically convincing, and casting them in these polar opposite dual roles and adds poignancy to the story.

Claude is a powerful and accessible work. I hope it will receive more productions, both in France and abroad.

Conductor: Jérémie Rhorer
Directed: Olivier Py
Sets and costumes: Pierre-André Weitz
Coeurs et Maîtrise de l'Opéra de Lyon, Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon 

Quotes above are from an uncredited translation of Claude Gueux.


  1. Yay for new operas! I'm off to two myself this week. The premiere of La Selva de los relojes (The Forest of Clocks) by Canadian composer Chris Paul Harman tomorrow lunchtime and then a workshop of Ruth by Jeffrey Ryan on Saturday night.

    1. That's awesome. WashNashOpera is doing Moby Dick next season. I must see that if nothing else on their schedule.

  2. I have hopes of a production of Moby Dick in Toronto. Now that Ben Heppner seems to have reconciled with COC (he didn't sing there for 17 years) it seems like a natural. Calgary did Moby Dick with an excellent all Canadian cast headed by Ben that could easily be reassembled in Toronto.

    1. It'd be even better if someone would record it and webcast and/or release it on DVD. Instead of another La Boheme or Don Giovanni (not that I wouldn't want to see more Don Giovannis, but we will always have those.)


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