Marco Stroppa - Re Orso

Opéra Comique, Paris, Tuesday May 22 2012

Conductor: Susanna Mälkki. Production: Richard Brunel. Dramaturgie: Catherine Ailloud-Nicolas et Giordano Ferrari. Sets and Costumes: Bruno De Lavenère. Lighting: Laurent Castaingt. Ircam electronic creation: Carlo Laurenzi. Ircam scientific adviser: Jean Bresson. Singing coaches: Christophe Manien, Joël Soichez. Re Orso, un uomo di potere: Rodrigo Ferreira. Verme, una donna del popolo: Monica Bacelli. Oliba, moglie forzata del Re: Marisol Montalvo. Trovatore: Alexander Kravets. Papiolo, buffone: Geoffrey Carey. Cortigiani: Cyril Anrep, Geoffrey Carey, Daniel Carraz, Piera Formenti. Ensemble Intercontemporain.

Re Orso, based on an elaborate 1865 poem by Arrigo Boito, is a simple tale of a murderous, mythical tyrant, with a simple, old-fashioned moral: like all of us, tyrants die. When a lion combats a worm, the worm has the last laugh: "Tutto nel mondo è burla".

As the work is brand new I thought it might be useful to sum up the plot as published on the Opéra Comique’s website:

Part One: Orso (Bear) Alive
  • Scene 1: at the Cretan court, before the year 1000, King Bear maintains a reign of terror. He commits a murder in public and forces his courtiers to sing his fame.
  • Scene 2: the next night a mysterious voice haunts him. Has the woman he killed escaped death or is his conscience bothering him?
  • Scene 3: to shake off his nightmares, he decides to marry Oliba, a young foreigner he has kidnapped. She refuses his advances, petrified; he attempts to rape her, helped by his henchmen.
  • Scene 4: the woman or her ghost reappear: the Worm. A “dialectical duel” with the King ensues. The King admits the ambivalence of his soul.
  • Scene 5: the wedding feast. A troubadour sings with his instrumental double, a player-piano. Papiol, the jester, does magic tricks with doves. The Worm reveals to Oliba the secrets of this strange court. The troubadour rashly sings a love sing to Oliba. The King kills the troubadour, Oliba and the Worm and forces his horrified courtiers (and the orchestra) to join in an orgy of violence and feigned gaiety.
Part two: Orso Dead
  • Scene 1: the dying King faces his confessor and offers him money for absolution, but the confession turns into a nightmare. The dead reappear to act out the King’s misdeeds. The Worm recounts her voyage to find the King.
  • Scene 2: all are united in a diabolical litany during the King’s death.
  • Scene3: the Worm, now the voice of the people, sings her victory over the tyrant. 
According to the programme notes, “Stroppa’s musical myth explores power in the spirit of opera bouffa, but also that of the theatre of Hugo and above all Shakespeare, whom Boito knew well, having translated him or adapted him for the operatic stage". Hence hints in the action and music to, e.g. Rigoletto, Rossini ensembles (I thought of "Questo è un nodo avvilupatto"), Falstaff, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, etc. "It analyses the effects of power on the relation between reality and truth for those who exercise or endure it: the doubt that embraces the tyrant, the compromises that surround him, the fascination he exerts over his victims".

Boito
Musically, the work is, to say the least, intense. As you might expect from someone who has been in charge of research at France's (and Boulez') IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) it's more "hard core" than many other new operas, which these days tend to be "post-modern" easier listening (when not dreary oratorios with pretentious texts). "Academic," said one of my neighbours; "dated," said the other. Maybe: neither of those bothered me. It is meticulously and intelligibly constructed. Part One is mainly instrumental. But - a first for me in the opera house - during the wedding scene the Ensemble Intercontemporain threw off their jackets and quit the pit to join in the wild, forced bacchanalia on stage, wearing or waving their instruments, and never came back. Apart from a lone accordeonist on stage, Part Two is hauntingly (but gloomily) electronic, with an impressive "totem" of loudspeakers rising slowly out of the stage. Each singer is "doubled" by an instrument: Orso: bassoon in the upper range; Oliba: clarinet; Verme: viola; Troubadour: player piano.

The score, hugely varied, lively and dramatic, follows the action closely, in a way reminscent of Händel. And rather than trying to describe it better myself, to give a feel I'll translate a few lines from Stroppa's own indications in the libretto, as outlined in the excellent "educational kit" found on the website:

Scene 2
  • Bassoon and oboe play mainly multiphonic sounds
  • Non-comprehensible electronic voice
Scene 3
  • Courtier: whispered voice, but strongly amplified
  • Trombone: deep slaps. Double bass pizzicato, medium-high harmonics
  • Wa-wa trumpet becomes a sort of third speaking part
  • Glissandi
  • Voice more disembodied but text more comprehensible
  • Shower of sounds
As a knowedgeable friend observed over coffee this weekend, it was a good thing that a work so dense didn't go on beyond 1 hour 20 minutes. An hour of the variety and drama of Part One was fine; an hour of the gloom that followed the tolling bell, "a hundred years later", would have been 40 minutes too much.

It isn't easy to judge the singers individually, their voices all being amplified, but the names in the cast no doubt imply what a strong team they made - with a special mention for Monica Bacelli's super Verme and the athletic, charismatic commitment (whether running, leaping or crawling) of Brazilian countertenor Rodrigo Ferreira.

I'm always a bit wary of what appear to me to be "trendy" productions, but I realise that for the young artists I know, these days art and fashion are inseparable, so maybe designer chic is simply one facet of contemporary art. The King, here, was dressed in black breeches and boots under a Comme des Garçons style pleated skirt, bare-chested under a "bum-freezer" (sometimes white, sometimes black) with a royal sash. His courtiers and servants were part Max Wall (wild hair, dusty tails, and spats), part Rick Owens (if you don't know, look him up: my young artist friends are fans, though they can't afford a thread of his fashions*), all in black or white with more wild hair, pale-faced and dark, hollow eyed. Verme was kind of politically committed young woman you see at anti-globalisation events: biker jacket, plain, grubby dress, Doc Martens.

The set could have been the lobby of an extremely chic new hotel, the Orso with its name in fluorescent Roman capitals. At the start, a rectangular space was formed by a low wall of something like molten pewter. It turned out that what appeared to be folds of the liquid metal were in fact those of a heavy, dull-silver curtain (that must have cost a fortune; continuing the fashion theme, I thought of Paco Rabanne), raised and lowered as needed. There was a door-sized hatch in the bronze floor through which Orso could dispatch the murdered woman in a flash of flames. The hatch, raised on chains and with a candelabra, became a table (or the hotel's smart, minimal reception desk), with a skirt of white folds lit from within. For the wedding feast, it was covered with a cloth and glasses laid out in rows by the bickering courtiers. The curtains revealed the rear of the stage, with funnels of blood-like wine served through pipes and eventually strewn, like blood, over table and (think Lucia) bride, a gantry/bridge and a black spiral staircase. When he was dead, the heavy curtain became Orso's shroud. The action throughout was fast and frenzied, sometimes violent, perfectly regulated: impressive. My reservations were only that the impeccably chic aesthetic had a distancing effect; and the collapse of Orso's name in lights at the end was unexpectedly corny.

Still... this was a high-quality production of a meticulous work, hence the unusual length of this write-up. Anyone who thinks (or claims) there's no audience for contemporary music or opera should have been at the Salle Favart to hear a full house cheering singers, actors, conductor and composer loudly. Opera as dead as Re Orso? Not yet.

*So I've been to his shop in Paris. When you enter you're greeted with silent glares of loathing from the staff for (a) not being the very pineapple of fashion and (b) interrupting their leisure.

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