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Pascal DUSAPIN (b. 1955)
Perelà, Uomo di fumo (2003)
John Graham-Hall (tenor, Perelà); Isabelle Philippe (soprano, the Queen); Chantal Perraud (coloratura, Alloro’s daughter); Martine Mahé (contralto, the Old Woman); Nora Gubisch (mezzo-soprano, Oliva di Bellonda); Friedemann Röhlig (bass, Master of Ceremonies, Minister); Scott Wilde (bass, Servant, Alloro, President of the Court of Justice); Niels van Doesum (bass, First Guard, Pilone the Philosopher); Nicolas Courjal (bass-baritone, Second Guard, Rodella the Banker); Daniel Gundlach (falsetto, Archbishop); Gilles Yanetti (the Parrot);
Chorus of the National Opera, Montpellier
Montpellier National Orchestra/Alain Altinoglu
Recorded: (live) Opera Berlioz-Le Corum, Montpellier, May 2003
NAIVE MO 782168 [65:45 + 55:34]


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Perelà, Uomo di fumo, an opera in ten chapters, is Dusapin’s fourth opera. In each of his earlier operas (Romeo & Juliette [1985/8], Medeamaterial [1990] and To be Sung [1992/3]), Dusapin tackles widely different issues. Each of them attempts a solution to the problem of contemporary opera. So, Romeo & Juliette, in two parts of fairly equal length articulated around a pivotal orchestral section (La Révolution, in memory of Giacinto Scelsi), explores the complex relationship between its multi-lingual libretto and music, while dealing with a number of present-day concerns (available on Accord 201162). Medeamaterial (available on Harmonia Mundi HMC 905215), a setting of a libretto in German by Heiner Müller, is essentially a long monologue for one voice and baroque orchestra; it was originally written to be staged with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. To Be Sung (available on Harmonia Mundi MFA 216026) is an abstract, ritualistic opera for three voices and seven instruments without any real dramatic action.

With Perelà, Uomo di fumo, Dusapin has written a somewhat more traditional grand opera;  compared to its predecessors. At the time of writing, he has completed his fifth opera The Last Night (A Story of Faustus) to be premiered in 2006 by the Berliner Staatsoper, and is working on his sixth essay in the genre.

Compared to Dusapin’s earlier operatic works, Perelà is relatively straightforward. The libretto (in Italian) is drawn from Aldo Palazzeschi’s “futurist novel” Il Codice Perelà and tells a fairly direct story involving a number of clearly delineated characters. As such, it strictly follows Palazzeschi’s linear narration, albeit dropping a number of asides and re-ordering some short sequences in order to tighten the narration. Actually, Dusapin dropped six chapters in all out of the sixteen chapters that make up Palazzeschi’s novel. Aldo Palazzeschi (pseudonym of Aldo Giuliani) wrote his “futurist novel” between 1908 and 1910. It was published in 1911 and has since then acquired a cult status. It centres around a Christ-like figure (Perelà) come from “up there” to live among men and eventually returning “up there”. Although Palazzeschi emphasises the Christ-like nature of Perelà, particularly so in later revisions of his novel, he describes the work as a fable; which it really is. There is nevertheless a major difference between Christ and Perelà: the latter actually says very little and makes no attempt at proselytising. He stands, an outsider, witnessing the behaviour of the town’s people and their leaders, be they the Queen, the King, the archbishop, the banker or the philosopher. He never exerts influence on their behaviour. In this, however, he is not entirely successful: Alloro finally commits suicide in order to emulate Perelà, and Oliva di Bellonda (“a woman who cannot love”) finally falls in love with Perelà and even offers to defend him at the Court of Justice, but with no result, except for making herself ridiculous. Perelà’s “otherness” (he was born out of smoke, in a black womb) makes him an object of curiosity and admiration. As a consequence of the esteem in which he is held by everyone, the King even asks him to write the New Code (Il Codice), about which we are told nothing. All would thus be well, were it not for the suicide by fire of Alloro, the King’s old butler, who from the beginning dreams of emulating Perelà. From then on, Perelà’s fate takes another dramatic turn: he is brought to court for having caused Alloro’s suicide, is sentenced to prison: you cannot condemn a man of smoke to death. He is incarcerated in a small cell built on top of Mount Calleio (read “Golgotha”) from where he eventually escapes by disintegrating into thin air. His boots (i.e. an oblique allusion to the Holy Shroud) are the only reminder of his presence on earth.

A number of characters regularly appear during the opera, albeit fleetingly in some cases, although only a few of them may be said to be important. Among them there is the Queen, Oliva di Bellonda who is actually an important character in the opera; the most complex character in the novel and in the opera also. Alloro’s daughter is given an extraordinary, histrionic Mad Scene when she accuses Perelà of having led her father to suicide. As befits characters from a fable, most of them are caricatures: the archbishop (sung by a falsetto and accompanied by organ) who keeps repeating the same “moral” clichés whatever the situation, the philosopher who has actually no real philosophic doctrine at all, and the banker whose only aim is to make money, no matter how (“With smoke, one can make the best speculations in the world”). As already hinted at, some characters are also momentarily accompanied by a particular instrument, e.g. the Queen whose scene with Perelà is “coloured” by the harpsichord, the archbishop by the organ. The voices, too, have been carefully chosen, e.g. coloratura (Alloro’s daughter), mezzo-soprano (Oliva di Bellonda), falsetto (archbishop). The chorus’s part is also very important, particularly during the mob scenes and the ball. The orchestral forces are large, including piano, harpsichord, organ and an on-stage band, the latter in the ball scene.

Musically speaking, Perelà is a synthesis of Dusapin’s music-making to date. His remarkable dramatic feeling clearly evident in his orchestral music and concertos and his chamber works, makes him an ideal composer for the stage. From this point of view, Perelà brilliantly succeeds. Dusapin holds one’s attention from first to last in a masterly way, mainly thanks to the remarkable invention displayed throughout. This piece never outstays its welcome, although it needs repeated hearings to make its point to the full. It is a complex work, musically and emotionally and fully repays repeated hearings. It is well worth the effort, and I for one firmly believe that Perelà is one of the most important and most successful recent operas.

This recording was made live during performances in Montpellier, but you would hardly notice it, were it not for some not unduly intrusive stage noises. The cast seems to me a strong one. Everyone sings with complete commitment and with assurance. As already mentioned, some parts (Oliva di Bellonda and Alloro’s daughter) are taxing, and so are some of the smaller parts (the archbishop’s one is particularly demanding). The Montpellier orchestra rise to the occasion and play with communicative energy throughout, so that Dusapin’s strongly expressive music comes off in the best possible way. Clearly, this is a major release of a major work of our time; and I hope that opera houses will not be long in staging Perelà .

Hubert Culot




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