Philippe Hurel - Les Pigeons d'Argile
Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, 2014
Tito Ceccherini, Mariame Clément, Gaëlle Arquez, Aimery Lefèvre, Vincent Le Texier, Vannina Santoni, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Gilles Ragon
Culturebox - 20 April 2014
Tanguy Viel, a French crime writer known for cinematic references in his books - Hitchcock notably being a key figure of influence - employs very clear cinematic techniques as the librettist for Philippe Harel's first opera work, Les Pigeons d'Argile (Clay Pigeons). Making its 2014 premiere at the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, the subject of the opera - a reworking of the Patty Hearst case - and the genre almost demands a cinematic treatment, which inevitably gives rise to the question of whether Les Pigeons d'Argile wouldn't have been better suited to the screen than the stage.
The relationship between opera and cinema, of music and drama working closely together, was recognised right from the earliest days of the new medium. Prokofiev, Strauss and Korngold were among the earliest adopters of the new artform, not just composing film soundtracks, but also incorporating cinematic effects and montage techniques into their works (Strauss's Intermezzo for example being made up of cuts of short scenes rather than traditional longer acts). By and large however, cinema and opera have tended to follow their own separate paths over the course of the 20th century, with only the occasional experimental collaboration made in the use of film and video in stagings and even more rarely seeing any adventurous compositional influence on the musical language employed.
It's only relatively recently that we've seem modern opera look at cinema as something to be embraced wholeheartedly into opera. Beyond the composition of traditional soundtracks and the translation of films into opera (most notably Brokeback Mountain), Philip Glass has for example also collaborated in the creative process of filmmaking through the fusion of music and image in films like Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Glass has however also taken cinema into the opera world in bold works like La Belle et La Bête, scoring an opera to the rhythm and montage of Cocteau's classic film with opera singing placed on top of the existing dialogue. More recently Michel van der Aa and David Mitchell's Sunken Garden incorporated live singing performances that interacted with actors in filmed sections.
The importance of cinema on Les Pigeons d'Argile is evident right from the prologue. Opening with a shoot-out in a hangar, pre-recorded filmed footage is projected to show a more realistic cinematic version of what is being acted live out on stage. What is significant about the opening scene however is not that it's just a way to make a shoot-out and car-chase action sequence more realistic than could ever be achieved on a theatre stage, but that it's a set up for that very cinematic narrative device of the flashback. Act I and II then go back to look at the sequence of events that lead up to this scene, with Act III considering the aftermath.
This is not particularly revolutionary in terms of how it affects the composition of an opera piece, since the tone of the music and even overtures have long - since Wagner at least - been used to foreshadow dramatic developments. In terms of strict plot development, there's not much here either that wouldn't be better suited to a film screen. Based on the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, it's a story of love and revolution, a textbook case of Stockholm Syndrome. In Les Pigeons d'Argile, Patricia 'Patty' Baer is the daughter of a millionaire industrialist kidnapped by left-wing revolutionaries who comes to sympathise with their aims and joins them in extremist activities like robbing banks.
The laying out of the plot is fairly conventional, as it the manner in which the characters are drawn. There's not a great deal of depth or subtlety in how the two sides of the "class struggle" are viewed here. The use of guns has already been established by the prologue, and it's while viewing a media arranged shooting of clay pigeons on Bernard Baer's estate that the two young Marxist revolutionaries Toni and Charlie hatch their plan to kidnap the daughter of the millionaire and aspiring politician.
The prologue, where Toni's father is shot by the police while helping his son escape, also highlights the fact that the opera is concerned not so much with the political ramifications of the class struggle as with the psychological questions surrounding Patty's Stockholm Syndrome behaviour and Toni's rebellion. That's seen as having a lot to do with fathers. Toni's father Pietro is an "old socialist", a small time village activist who has never really had any thought of changing the world. Fond of his wine, the old man is an embarrassment to his son, but wants to find a way to redeem himself. In the past he and Bernard Baer were friends, but each went separate ways. Baer too however - although less strongly characterised - also wants to win the approval of his daughter, and believes it can be done though his wealth and success.
On the side of the younger generation, there's not a lot of insight or originality of observation here either. The children want to break away from the ideals of their parents and a corrupt system that defines their roles, hoping to set up a "new constitution". Their desire to keep personal feelings separate from their ideals is however shown to be unrealistic. Charlie is unable to keep "love and revolution" separate (we are told frequently in a repeated motif), and jealousy creeps in when the childhood friendship between Toni and Patty is rekindled, leading her to sell-out the revolutionaries to the chief of police. I'm not sure why Charlie's position between love and revolution dominates over the family, class and generational differences, but that seems to be the intention of the creators, perhaps as a way of reflecting the unpredictable element of human feelings.
This however comes at the cost of failing to adequately explore the other characters, with Bernard Baer in particular being neglected. As an opera, Les Pigeons d'Argile ought to be able to bring a greater depth to the characterisation than is evident from the superficial cinematic nature of the expositional dialogue and compressed shortcuts of the storyline. Viel's dialogue for the libretto is sung mainly as parlando recitative, and the singing voices at least bringing full intensity to the emotions and the situations. Harel's score accompanies and underlines the sentiments, emphasising declarations with short phrases and exclamatory flurries, but it doesn't succeed in establishing an overall distinct musical tone for the piece or give the subject any wider dimension.
As a theatrical performance however and purely as a drama, there's much to enjoy in Toulouse's world premiere presentation of the work directed by Mariame Clément. The singing from all the principal singers is exceptionally good, Gaëlle Arquez in particular standing out as Charlie, who tends to take the centre stage in the work. Aside from the magic-camera on-stage projected footage (projections of hand-held cameras show the characters in real-world setting rather than on the stage) and even simulated freeze-frames of action, the filming and editing of the performance also adopts a cinematic approach, using split-screen techniques to capture simultaneous action. Little of this however is as innovative as the combination of film and opera could and ought to be.
Links: Culturebox, Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse