The “great ode” to Claudel by Philippe Leroux

What can the human voice do? Everything, if we listen to the composer Philippe Leroux. At the Opéra de Nantes, the six characters of The Annunciation made to Mary, based on the play by Paul Claudel, encourage us to browse the dictionary in search of the right words. They sing, of course, talk, whisper and shout. But they also modulate their breath, trill and hiss, explore the hoarseness of the throat and the high-pitched shrillness which one does not know if they jostle or if they fascinate. Both probably…

Without forgetting the astonishing and facetious recourse to onomatopoeia. And even the speech of Claudel himself, reciter-observer of his own creation, whose rocky timbre has been recreated by means of a neural synthesizer.

Here’s to the sound material. As for the expression of the text, Philippe Leroux also multiplies the possibilities. From the sentence stated in its continuity or lacerated by silence, through bursts of repeated syllables which impose their tempo, transforming the singers into dancers of words. Before, magnificent homages to past times, reminiscences of ancient polyphonies caress the ear and the soul.

Sin and redemption

For his first opera, the composer born in 1959 confronts a “monument” of French theatre, “which deals with human passions at the same time as it carries a metaphysical content”, he writes in the program of the show. The choice is not surprising on the part of an artist with a catalog rich in vocal pages, drawing on the spiritual poetry of the Renaissance as well as that of our time. The libretto by Raphaèle Fleury (1) narrows the Claudelian river, favoring psychological complexity over mystical vertigo.

For having given the kiss of forgiveness to Pierre de Craon who had wanted to abuse her, Violaine, daughter of a rich peasant, contracts leprosy. Under the afflicted gaze of her parents and the vindictiveness of her sister Mara, she breaks off her engagement and takes refuge in a leech far from the world. Seven years have passed when Mara finds her and entrusts her, in a gesture of defiance and hope, with the corpse of her little girl. Violaine brings him back to life but, from being brown like those of his mother, the child’s eyes have turned blue, like those – forever extinguished – of his savior…

“Basement of my conscience”

Faith, elevation and abysses, jealousy and mercy: The Annunciation made to Mary opens chasms of reflection in the wake of the “handful of tenants populating the basement of myawareness “, as Claudel said. The performance of those who give them flesh and voice commands admiration like their virtuoso mastery, so elegant that it seems easy, natural.

It is therefore appropriate to mention them all: the noble and graceful Violaine by Raphaële Kennedy, the sensual and tormented Mara by Sophia Burgos, the touching and overwhelmed parents, embodied by Els Janssens Vanmunster and Marc Scoffoni. Wonderful, too, the contrast between Charles Rice, fiancé in love but prosaic, and Vincent Bouchot as Pierre de Craon, a figure of redemption.

A work to be included in the lyrical repertoire

The ten instruments of the Cairn Ensemble, entangled with a subtle electronic device concocted by Ircam, marries and stirs up the drama in the softness or in the fulgurance, the flights like the acerbic frictions. This deployment of colors and climates flourishes under the direction of Guillaume Bourgogne, as attentive to the plateau as to the pit, with a constant concern for balance but also for outpouring.

We find this readability in the staging of Célie Pauthe: sets and costumes in the monastic style, elegant black and white videos of the landscapes of the native Tardenois of Paul Claudel. However, faced with so much musical creativity, the spectator begins to dream of a more ambitious, more lively theatrical inventiveness.

It now remains to be hoped that this powerful work will become part of the repertoire of lyrical theaters and will reach an audience in search of questions as much as answers, of a place granted to silence as much as sound experimentation. “The poem is not made of these letters that I plant like nails, but of the blank that remains on the paper”affirmed Claudel.

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