Thursday, 12 December 2019

Attahir - Le Silence des ombres (Brussels, 2019)

Benjamin Attahir - Le Silence des ombres

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2019

Benjamin Attahir, Olivier Lexa, Julia Szproch, Raquel Camarinha, Clémence Poussin, Renaud Delaigue, Morgane Heyse, Gwendoline Blondeel, Sarah Théry, Pierre Derhet, Sébastien Dutrieux, Luc Van Grunderbeeck

La Monnaie MM Channel Streaming - 4th October 2019

If you ever were to compile a list of the greatest opera librettists, the Nobel Prize winning Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck would have to be up there and close to the top, even though in most cases his involvement with opera was more in his works being adapted rather than providing an original libretto. Maeterlinck's dramatic writing however is rare in that it seems to adapt readily and often without any necessary revision as a ready-made opera libretto. Not only that, but his dramas also appear to be perfectly suited in their abstraction, symbolism and ambiguity to sit alongside the music of a composer who can bring out other intangible qualities and moods of the interiorisation of texts that express "the drama of existence itself".

That being the case - and with Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Dukas' Ariadne et Barbe-bleu being the most famous adaptations of Maeterlinck - it would seem to be impressionist music that best captures the moods of Maeterlinck's indefinable dramas. French composer and conductor Benjamin Attahir doesn't just follow in the footsteps of Debussy and Dukas in his scoring of Maeterlinck's 'Trois petits drames pour marionnettes' (Three short puppet plays, 1894) as Le Silence des ombres. Comparison is unavoidable, but Attahir brings a modern sensibility that is informed by and attempts to build on the qualities of those other composers to bring out different aspects of Maeterlinck's work.

Not only is musical comparison inevitable, but the three short works that make up Le Silence des ombres do nonetheless all exhibit familiar variations on themes and treatment that you can find in Pelléas et Mélisande and Ariadne et Barbe Bleu. In La Mort de Tintagiles, Ygraine and her siblings have lived their entire lives in a dark castle located a deep in a valley of shadows, much like the eerie Allemonde of Pelléas et Mélisande, Ygraine seeing only passing birds, falling leaves and fleeting images of nature outside her window. She and her sisters live in fear of their grandmother the queen, a monstrous figure who lives alone in a tower and is never seen.

The queen has destroyed most of their family, fearful that someone will supplant her. Suspecting that the queen means to harm their young brother Tintagiles, Ygraine goes to visit her sister Bellangère and her husband Aglovale, seeking protection. The mood of fear and anxiety there is only further heightened by anticipation of the unknown power and desires of the Queen, by the sounds and voices hears whispering outside the door. And then in the night, they come for Tintagiles.

In Intérieur, the second of the three dramas, there is a similar play on building of another aspect of tension and fear. An old man and his companion approach a house where a family are living a life of simple contentment and warmth in each other's company, but they are the bearers of bad news that the family's young daughter has drowned. They hesitate to break the mood of the happy scene until Marthe arrives and presses them to do what needs to be done. There is terrible anticipation leading up to the moment of delivery of a message that will destroy the illusion of happiness.

In both cases is the thing to be feared is death, and the tension that Maeterlinck taps into is that awareness of what we know beneath the surface but refuse to acknowledge; that happiness is temporary and fleeting and depends on blocking out the fact that death will come and destroy everything. Death however takes a thousand forms in Maeterlinck: it can be the death of hope or, as is the case in Pelléas et Mélisande, the death of innocence. That work comes very much to mind in the third part of the trilogy, Alladine et Palomides. Alladine is another woman - she is literally a slave here - who is subject to the forces and the will of men.

Palomides loves her even though he is engaged to Astolaine, whose father Ablamore also has has feelings towards Alladine. Ablamore consequently is very much a Golaud figure, claiming he saw Alladine and Palomides kiss and believing that Palomides has betrayed Astolaine he takes a terrible vengeance against them that sees them trapped in a cavern and dying a fading death rather like Mélisande's fate. Other similarities lie in the moody symbolism of the work, Alladine fearful of the huge symbolic palace that overlooks the sea, where you can get lost in its corridors and rooms. There's a lamb instead of a ring here that falls into a whirlpool, but when Astolaine's sisters turn up and try to get the keys from Albamore, it also puts you in mind of Ariane et Barbe-bleu.

It's not only a challenge for a composer to adapt these pieces and create a distinction between those more famous opera adaptations of Maeterlinck, but also a remarkably high bar to measure up to them. It helps that the three pieces are all fairly concentrated and intense in how they stir deep emotions of fear and anxiety, and Attahir accordingly applies a heavier hand towards those emotions. He balances this however with a reduced orchestration and use of specific instruments, including some Eastern instruments and melodies, particularly in the third piece Alladine et Palomides.

In fact the composer even managed to tailor a distinct sound and approach to each of the three different dramas, the central piece Intérieur being largely intoned/narrated rather than sung, very much in the manner of Arkel's commentary in Pelléas et Mélisande. Attahir also manages to achieve a coherence for them to all work together to as a single opera, even though there is no attempt to link or connect the pieces. Maeterlinck's consistency of themes, symbolism and general abstraction of worldview however probably allow this to be achieved more easily.

The set design successfully contributes towards the same effect, finding a different visual response to the moods of the three pieces, while each also very much inhabit that interiorised Maeterlinck world of shadows of the unknown with undercurrents of tension. As well as using light and darkness, archways and staircases, the use of textures, stone, steel and concrete is also applied to create a timeless, non-specific location. This adds emphasis onto the subtle variations of character and mood of each of the three pieces and the distinct circumstances of the characters in each, with occasional projections adding a further dimension.

While the score (conducted here by the composer), Olivier Lexa's direction and the set designs all play an important part in providing coherence and consistency that brings out the distinct character of Maeterlinck's writing, the lyrical quality of the vocal arrangements that also expands further to the character of the component parts and the work as a whole This aspect is superbly brought out by some terrific singing of a mostly youthful cast that is sweet, haunted and melancholy in expression, occasionally stretching to desperation. All are wonderful, but certainly worthy of note are the leading performances from Raquel Camarinha as Ygraine, Marie and Astolaine, Julia Szproch as Tintagiles and Alladine and Pierre Derhet as Palomides.

Links: La Monnaie