S&H Opera review

AHMED ESSYAD Héloïse et Abélard Théàtre musical du Châtelet, Paris May 16, 19, and 22, 2001 (FC)

The Opera national du Rhin in Strasbourg is featured in a new series "Festival des regions" at the Théàtre musical du Châtelet in Paris. This festival brings two of the most important operas of this last season at the opera in Strasbourg to the attention of Parisian audiences.

Their second offering is the first Paris performances of a new opera in three acts, which had its first performances in Strasbourg in October of last year. Ahmed Essyad (b1938) is the composer of a wide variety of music, including several operas, three of which have been recorded, so certainly he has credentials to merit this attention. It was a valiant effort and the production was fine, but, as so often happens, the creative inspiration of the composer was lacking.

A native of Morocco, Essyad studied at the conservatory in Rabat before moving to Paris in 1962 and continuing his studies with Max Deutsch, a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg. This, of course, makes him a third generation graduate of the Second Viennese School, and therein lies one of the problems.

Héloïse et Abélard is twelve-tone and atonal and, because of this history, has the quaint, antique sound of a bygone age. The composer is described as introducing North African influences and rhythms in his music but these were not in obvious evidence and the work ultimately seemed more academic that operatic. It is no doubt a well-crafted piece and some of the scenes have an emotional charge, but overall the declamatory style of the singer's delivery soon became tedious. The libretto, by noted French author Bernard Noël, was perhaps the most interesting thing about this evening. Noël, a legendary figure in French literature, is famous for abandoning writing (for a period) in the 60's. His current status, much like J. D. Salinger in the United States, makes him a figure of mystery and the audience followed the projected text with some interest.

The story is well known. Abélard was one of Europe's' renowned scholars in the Middle Ages and his love affair with his brilliant and attractive student, Héloïse, resulted in his castration by angry family members. Their subsequent marriage and devotion to each other became a legend even during their lifetimes. Their tomb holds a place of honor in Paris' Pere Lachaise cemetery. Essyad uses the technique of having a narrator describe the story, here sung with authority by the fine soprano, Maja Pavolvska. She is seen first on stage with a septet of musicians and the pit orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, later joins in almost imperceptibly. The real burden of this opus is borne by the two principals, soprano Jia Lin Zhang, and baritone Peter Savidge and the composer was lucky to have such fine lead singers. Both sang with authority, accuracy and, as much as possible within the confines of the music, passion. Zhang's Third Act aria, "J'ai connu le sexe de l'homme," when she considers the mystery of physical love and reflects on the subsequent tragedy, is the emotional high point of this opera and was powerfully rendered. Also deserving of special mention was the New York City counter-tenor, Johnny Maldonado who sang the role of the avenging guardian uncle, Fulbert. This is a role that Verdi would have assigned to the baritone, but Maldonado was up to the task and sang the role with towering rage as if he were Leonard Warren, just up a few octaves.

The other cast members are also deserving of praise and the overall level of singing was very high. René Shirrer sang a warm-voiced Garlande, a friend of Abélard, and the rival of Abélard, Roscelin, sung by Christian Baumbärtel was also effective. The sets were simple but conveyed the dignity of the characters and story. The stage action was a bit static, but this could be the result of the libretto which was lacking in dramatic action (the exacting of the revenge, for instance, was done between acts) and most of the dialogue was contemplative and thoughtful, even the love scene. The three acts were played without intermission and finished in 90 minutes.

As fine a production as this was, few sparks were seen and there were certainly no creative flames.

Frank Cadenhead

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