Laurent PETITGIRARD (b. 1950)
Guru - An opera in three acts (2006-2009)
Hubert Claessens (bass-baritone) – Guru; Sonia Petrovna (actress) – Marie; Philippe Do (tenor) – Victor, Guru’s assistant; Karen Wierzba (soprano) – Iris, the child’s mother; Philippe Kahn (bass) – Carelli, the sect ‘scientist’; Marie-Noële Vidal (alto) – Marthe, Guru’s mother
Vocal Ensemble A La Carte; Budapest Studio Choir and Honvéd Male Choir, Hungarian Symphony Orchestra Budapest/Laurent Petitgirard
rec. Hungaroton Studio, Budapest, Hungary, 8-24 October 2010
NAXOS 8.660300-01 [71:05 + 49:24]
A religious sect is living on a desert island, led by Guru who guides their lives and has total authority over them. With him are his mother Marthe and Iris, with whom he has a child. Victor and Carelli are the ‘financier’ and the ‘scientist’. A new group of disciples arrives. One of them is Marie who refuses to sing, which all the others do. She says to Guru that she has come to destroy him.
Iris comes and says that her child is ‘at death’s door’. The child has no food only sea water – as have the rest of the group. The new disciples want to save the child but to no avail. He dies and the disciples are sent away to prepare for ‘the great journey’, which is in reality collective suicide.
Iris begrudges the loss of her child and is the first to commit suicide by throwing herself in the sea. Marthe now turns against Guru but he strangles her and Victor is killed by a group of adepts.
Carelli has prepared a drink that will purify the souls of the members. He is forced to drink it first of all and dies in convulsions. Marie tries to convince the others that this is madness, but everyone empties his or her flask and dies. Guru and Marie are left and Guru says that you will also follow me. He drinks and utters ‘The truth. Yes I can see the truth’, whereupon he too dies. Marie takes the flask and hurls it as far as she can. The music stops and all that is heard is Marie’s scream.
Extreme sects do appear from time to time, and there have been some examples of suicide sects not long ago. Charismatic and mad leaders have been able to hypnotize members very much in the way Guru does in this opera, which was completed in October 2009 and recorded a year later. I have not been able to find information about live performances.
However, listening to this recording convinced me that Guru has all the prerequisites for a thrilling and engaging production. The theme is topical, the dramatic build-up of tension is relentless and the intensity of the music can at times be almost unbearable. The interplay between soloists and chorus is suggestive and intensification is created through repetition. There are few if any longueurs and the musical language is accessible, also to listeners not accustomed to contemporary music. Rhythms are essential and in certain choral scenes there are similarities to Orff’s Carmina Burana and, more distantly perhaps, to John Adams’ Nixon in China. It is not exactly a choral opera but since the collective is so central to a sect the chorus participation is essential. The prologue is a very ‘catchy’ choral piece, to give just one example.
The orchestra is large and colourful with triple woodwinds, triple trumpets and trombones, four horns and tuba plus timpanist and three percussionists, harp, celesta and a large body of strings, all of which Laurent Petitgirard employs with utmost skill. Besides the six named soloists there is a vocal ensemble, whose members also have solo parts, representing new disciples. The dialogues are rather swift and energetic, often short phrases, but there are also longer solos, not exactly arias but some monologues develop into arioso. Iris’s long solo at the beginning of act III, when she bemoans her child is such an instant; very touching it is too and sung sensitively by Karen Wierzba. Victor and Carelli have some longer solos too but the main burden of the solo singing falls on Guru himself. This is a big important role for a bass-baritone with dramatic and expressive potential. Hubert Claessens fulfils the requirements admirably. Marie is a speaking role and Sonia Petrovna lives the role with fine sense of nuance.
The recording leaves nothing to be wished. The Hungaroton Studio is an ideal venue for opera, as collectors of Hungaroton recordings in the 1980s will be well aware. As seems to be the norm nowadays one has to download the libretto from the internet. This is not a wholly satisfactory situation. To read it on the computer screen you must have the computer in your listening room, which I haven’t. To print it out is easy but you then end up with a bunch of 57 pages. I solved it by reading through the libretto in advance and after listening I read it once more but one can’t remember all the textual details.
Enough carping. The drama and the music are an engrossing experience and I hope I will one day get an opportunity to see a live performance. In the meantime this excellent recording is a good substitute.
An engrossing experience.