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Escaich: Claude

DVD Button  Pottier, Chevallier; Bou, Ferreira, Lafont, Alvaro, Mathieu, Sheffield, Serra, Roussel, Bruce; Orchestre, Choeurs et Maitrise de l’Opéra de Lyon, Rhorer. Production: Py. BelAir Classiques BAC 118, 97mins., subtitled

Très Misérables.

Thierry Escaich’s momentous new opera, about jailed lovers in the custody of a sadistic warden, is based on a Victor Hugo short story.

Recordings Claude DVD Cover 1015

Critics Choice Button 1015 THE TITLE ROLE in Thierry Escaich’s new opera is probably the most physically punishing role in the entire canon, or so it seems in director Olivier Py’s world-premiere production at Opéra de Lyon. Baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou is punched, kicked, dragged, beaten and splattered with food in the prison where he’s serving a miserable seven-year sentence. Claude’s only glimmer of hope and decency is Albin (countertenor Rodrigo Ferreira), whom he saves, in an early encounter, from some bullying prisoners (intent on gang rape, in this staging). Albin, in return, offers to split his share of bread with Claude. Soon, the two inmates become lovers. 

The sadistic warden, played by the formidable baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont, hears of the affair and moves Albin to a different wing of the prison, whereupon the abject Claude goes to the warden and, in a thoroughly disturbing scene, begs desperately to have Albin brought back. The warden sternly refuses and throws Claude into solitary confinement. When Claude emerges and makes a second request, which is again refused, he murders the warden and stabs himself. 

Escaich’s music veers inexorably from hyperexpressive extended chromaticism to full-out thrashing dissonance, adroitly sustaining a dramatic intensity that rarely relents. In this context, the sporadic pockets of conventional tonality — the simple offstage song of a young girl, the deliberative ostinato of a major third as two narrators comment on the action — land with startling impact.

This unusually bleak opera, based on Victor Hugo’s 1834 short story “Claude Gueux,” receives here a grippingly realistic production, captured cinematically on video by Vincent Massip. The towering sets, by Pierre-André Weitz, are rotated manually by grimly laboring inmates; the centerpiece unit is a giant Hollywood Squares-type grid of individual prison cells. Conductor Jérémie Rhorer is a sure-handed guide through the often harrowing proceedings. 

Bou’s acting skills are ferocious, and his suffering — both physical and mental — is often difficult to watch. That he can simultaneously meet the strenuous vocal demands of the role is a wonder. As Albin, Ferreira musters as much intensity as he can but seems constrained by the inherent volume limits of the countertenor register. Still, he is Bou’s dramatic equal. Lafont’s warden is a genuinely fearsome presence, a world-class bad-guy who thunders through the role’s Sprechgesang. The chorus provides some cataclysmic incantations, most notably near the end, when Claude’s murder trial (after his unsuccessful suicide attempt) turns into a driving, impassioned dialectic between the judges and ensemble. 

Here, Hugo’s theme of man versus society, which almost thirty years later he developed in Les Misérables, comes explicitly to the fore. In the final scene, Claude awaits execution, nervously eating one last loaf of bread as a lone dancer (Laura Ruiz Tamayo) gracefully performs classical ballet combinations before disappearing quietly into the darkness. Though admittedly disturbing, Claude is a momentous new opera, and this is an urgent, enveloping realization. —Joshua Rosenblum 

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