OPERA NEWS - Le Premier Meurtre
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Le Premier Meurtre

Lille Opera

In Review Premier Meurte lg 217
Bigourdan and Chauvin in Le Premier Meurtre
© Simon Gosselin

LE PREMIER MEURTE  (The First Murder), by Arthur Lavandier, was commissioned by Lille Opera and Maxime Pascal’s Ensemble Le Balcon, with which the composer has worked since its inception. The world-premiere production (seen Nov. 8) was by American stage director Ted Huffman.

Le Balcon is one of France’s most progressive contemporary ensembles, exploring the possibilities of electronic amplification of instruments and voices. Lavandier recently arranged a version of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique for the ensemble, and Maxime Pascal, one of the founders of Le Balcon, scored a triumph with his take on Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in the intimate Théâtre de l’Athénée in Paris. (See opera news,Aug. 2013.) It would be a mistake to consider this simple amplification; the subtlety and acoustic sophistication of the process are impressive. On this occasion, the singers as well as the eighteen-piece orchestra were treated electronically, while a dozen onstage musicians played acoustically, creating a fascinating world of aural density, not unlike the effect of the offstage orchestra in The Three Sisters, by Peter Eötvös. 

To match this sonic sophistication, Federico Flamminio created a mysterious, dreamlike libretto, dividing more than ninety minutes of playing time into a traditional prelude, four acts and an epilogue, performed without an interval. We were presented with the writer Gabriel and his wife, Emma, whose lives seem to be on hold after an unexplained “incident.” Gabriel receives the hopeful message of a new work to be written on a journey through the devastated cold of a northern country, here imagined by director Huffman as something akin to Chekhov’s Russia. This exploration of sleep, nightmares and dreams included two narrators, Aleksandr (Damien Bigourdan) and Herman (Manuel Nuñez-Camelino), who comment on and organize Gabriel’s actions; Emma’s mysterious maidlike figure, Misère, sung by Elise Chauvin; Hippolytus, the handsome actor who is the erotic focus of Gabriel’s dreams, sung by baritone Taeill Kim; and a character known simply as l’Autre (the Other One), played by Vincent Vantyghem.

It was impossible to distinguish the real from the imaginary in this well-played psychological journey, but the strongest points of the evening came from some almost Italian-styleverismostage action. At a memorable moment, when Gabriel dismissed Misère from the stage, the theater filled with some spiky brass interventions from the onstage musicians, and the writer finally confessed his love for Hippolytus, who is later rejected by Gabriel, leading to the actor’s suicide. The problems of relationships also found L’Autre persuading Emma to abandon her husband before taking a knife to the writer. Was this a murder? A domestic drama? These questions were left open as Gabriel and his wife settled down to a formal dinner in the epilogue. 

Lavandier’s score spoke a popular hybrid musical language alternating atonality with more lyrical moments. Pascal conducted it with dramatic confidence. The vocal lines allowed the singers impressive flexibility, with the sound system providing an infinite palate of nuances, rather than just a boosting of volume. If occasionally the prosody sounded awkward, the name “Gabriel” had a consonant spiritual ring to it, and baritone Vincent Le Texier, in his best voice, gave a commanding performance of the role, opposite the authoritative legato singing of soprano Léa Trommenschlager as his wife. Chauvin displayed a haunting coloratura soprano as Misère. This was an ensemble piece without any weak links in the supporting cast, encouragingly played to a young and enthusiastic audience, who stayed behind afterward to discuss the work with its creators.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

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