Francesco Filidei - Giordano Bruno
Théâtre de Gennevilliers, Paris - 2016
Léo Warynski, Antoine Gindt, Lionel Peintre, Jeff Martin, Ivan Ludlow, Guilhem Terrail, Laura Holm, Eléonore Lemaire, Johanne Cassar, Lorraine Tisserant, Charlotte Schumann, Aurélie Bouglé, Benjamin Aguirre Zubiri, David Tricou, René Ramos Premier, Julien Clément, Antoine Kessel, Florent Baffi
ARTE Concert - 19th April 2016
There's clearly a very considered and structured approach taken by composer Francesco Filidei in relation to both the philosophical and musical content of his opera about Giordano Bruno. Interrogated by the Inquisition in Venice and condemned to death by the Catholic Church in Rome for blasphemy and heresy for putting his belief in scientific truths before religious dogma and mysticism, the Dominican friar was burned at the stake on 17th February 1600. Filidei's work attempts to give voice to his philosophical thoughts as well as dramatising his trial and execution and it results in a tremendous piece of musical theatre.
Filidei's opera divides the work into twelve scenes that interweave across the two halves of the work, the first taking place in Venice, the other in Rome. The twelve scenes themselves are divided between giving a voice to Bruno's philosophical ideas, with alternative scenes showing how he suffers for them at the hands of the religious authorities who will not have their faith challenged. That's a strong enough construct that allows for drama and contemplation and it's a blend that the composer and his librettist Stefano Busellato treat extraordinarily well, the ideas and situations providing the composer with the opportunity to create a rich sound world.
As a further measure, to add to the richness of the work and give further robustness to the construction, Filidei chooses to base each of the twelve scenes around each of the notes of the chromatic scale. The opera's first scene 'Preamble' - set in the smoking ruins in the aftermath of the auto-da-fé - starts on F-sharp, with subsequent scenes based on the trial following a descending path on the scale, while the scenes relating to Giordano Bruno's philosophy each start on an ascending note on the scale. The burning at the stake in Scene 11 runs through the chromatic scale again in reverse until scene 12 arrives at F-sharp again.
More than just being a technical trick, Filidei's sound world in Giordano Bruno is one that relates very closely to the situation, and particularly to the vocal expression. Some scenes are spare and atmospheric with repetitive phrasing of voices in the style of Salvatore Sciarrino, others multi-layered with choral sounds that draw influence from the Renaissance era of the work, of Palestrina by way of Claude Vivier (whose Kopernikus comes very much to mind here). Filidei's writing however is strong enough to encompass the vast range of the work's philosophical content, its consideration of life and death, of the exuberance of life in a carnival scene, in an escapist fantasy while in a prison cell, or in the full horror of a barbaric ritual execution.
At every stage however, there is great attention paid to the use of voices and the range of voices. Giordano Bruno is sung by a baritone (Lionel Peintre here running through a whole range of emotional and physical challenges), the Inquisitors are a tenor and a bass, with Pope Clement VIII sung by a countertenor. Also of great importance to the whole fabric of the work are the twelve individual voices of the chorus who contribute to provide an almost celestial or spiritual side to the work, as well as a very physical human presence as the voice of the people. They are a wave of flesh and ideas that Bruno has to alternately reach out to and then resist, an embodiment of the conflict he undergoes over the course of the twelve scenes.
Filmed at the Théâtre de Gennevilliers in Paris in 2016 not long after its creation and premiere at the Casa de Musica in Porto, it's hard to imagine the work being any better presented. The direction of the Ensemble Intercontemporain is taken up by Léo Warynski, and - set to the back of the stage - their presence emphasises how important the sound world is for this opera, how it creates a specific mood, and it draws attention to just how complex and varied the music is in relation to each of its scenes.
The stage sets and props are minimal, but likewise effective for the content and the tone of the work. A huge moon-like hemisphere hangs over the stage and the use of lighting all contribute to capturing the reality, the philosophy and an understanding of the nature of the world being explored and challenged here, which is nothing less than infinity and the place of man within it. The dramatic sequences are just as well depicted, again using simple effects and minimal props to give a sense of the forces massed against Giordano Bruno and the fate that is in store for him, and those final scenes at the stake indeed have a terrific impact.
The attention given over to the musical performance and the scene setting are all there however to serve as a platform for the all-important human presence on the stage. The place of man is at the centre of all these ideas, rituals, philosophy and beliefs and the conflicts between them are all focussed through the figure of Giordano Bruno. Lionel Peintre carries the weight of this conflict with a terrific singing performance, but Filidei makes such marvellous use of the voice that the strength of those ideas and the conflicts between seem to assail him from every side. The physicality of the performances, with the chorus and dancers also having an important part to play, gives the words real weight, showing the power of ideas and ideals to change the world.