Francesco Filidei - L'Inondation
L’Opéra Comique, Paris - 2019
Emilio Pomárico, Joël Pommerat, Chloé Briot, Boris Grappe, Norma Nahoun, Cypriane Gardin, Enguerrand de Hys, Yael Raanan-Vandor, Guilhem Terrail, Vincent Le Texier
ARTE Concert - September 2019
The musical sound world might be unconventional and difficult to decipher, but at its best contemporary opera like traditional opera forges a close bond between music, subject and character, bringing out something that music or drama on its own can't achieve, making it relevant and meaningful for a modern audience. Francesco Filidei managed that with his first opera in 2016, Giordano Bruno - for me one of the best new opera works of recent years - but French playwright Joël Pommerat has also found opera to be an effective way to draw something more from his dramas.
For his first original libretto for a new commission at L’Opéra Comique in Paris, Pommerat has therefore been matched with a composer very capable of exploring the writer's familiar but complex themes relating to family seen in his previous opera adaptations (Thanks to My Eyes, Au Monde, Pinocchio). L'Inondation (The Flood) is an original adaptation of a 1929 story by Yvegeny Zamayatin, a Russian author best known for 'We' a dystopian novel that directly influenced Orwell's writing of 1984.
L'Inondation is nonetheless a contemporary work that explores contemporary issues, or at least issues that have always been relevant and which seem no easier to deal with today. It's about the strain that has developed between a husband and wife who have been married almost 15 years but who have never had a child. They hear the sounds of children in neighbouring apartments and it causes a conflict of emotions, making their life together feel perfunctory and mechanical but with simmering emotions ready to boil over as each try to find ways to deal with the growing distance between them.
Or perhaps the metaphor is not so much that of something boiling over as much as a river filling up and overflowing its banks, which is the one that is evidently used to describe the situation in L'Inondation. When one of the neighbours in their apartment block dies, his young daughter is sent temporarily to stay with the man and the woman. The girl is 14, a significant age since their own child would have been that age if one had quickly followed their marriage. The arrival of a young girl certainly brings something new to their marriage, but as has already been indicated with an early scene showing a murder, it's not going to lead to a happy outcome.
While the nature of what happens is shocking, what leads up to it won't come as a surprise to anyone, but rather like the now well-used metaphors of stormy weather conditions and rising tides leading up to an emotional breaking point, the real challenge in a modern adaptation of the Zamayatin's work is getting underneath the human and social behaviours that lead up to it. Without having read Zamayatin, one suspects that his interest is similar to exploring the social conditions that trigger an extreme female response found also in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, as well as the corruption of the family/social unit that you see hinted at in Gorky's 'Vassa'.
The conditions that lead up to the overflow in L'Inondation are evidently less concerned with a historical examination of Russian society at the beginning of the 20th century than in how this would be seen nowadays in the context of mental illness, how it can develop and the devastating impact it can have. It also of course explores the more universally recognisable conditions of relations between men and women, how society views the roles each has to play, and examines the nature of the family unit.
To do that L'Inondation takes a wider view of life in the St. Petersburg tenement block than just that between the man and the woman and it's here that the opera is able to work on multiple levels, so to speak. Most evidently that's visible in Eric Soyer's three-level set design, with the man and woman on the ground floor, a young married couple with young children and a baby on the way on the second floor, and with the upper floor adding an almost narrative level and backgrounding, with a narrator/policeman making remarks about the case in an attic room with another room showing the young girl hanging out with friends from outside the tenement block.
What is clever about this is that it is not only able to switch from one scene to another fluidly, but it is able to show simultaneous events, leaving it up to the viewer to determine how much of what goes on elsewhere has an impact on what develops on the ground floor, which evidently takes the brunt of the overflow of the river. Certainly there is much hinted in the music and this is where the skills of a composer like Francesco Filidei are evident, the score providing a complex sound world that interlinks and connects sounds, emotions and inner lives between each of the characters, even as far as expressing the reliving of emotions and mental disturbance through the doubling of the young girl.
An additional element of self-identification would probably determine whether you actually gain any greater insight into the development of mental illness and the outcome of murder, with the associations of release, guilt, shame, and therapy that take place post-facto (or whether it's the post-facto is actually the real important aspect of the situation), but what is clear is that all the other elements are well catered for in Joël Pommerat's direction of the work for the Opéra Comique. Much like George Benjamin's work with Martin Crimp, you get a sense of true collaboration between the creators here. Other than the obvious metaphor of the storm nothing is over-explained, the opera is not wordy or expositional, it allows the music and silences to express just as much as the dramatic action.
As far as the music is concerned that appears to be in very safe hands with Emilio Pomárico teasing out all the little details, the conflicts and interconnectivity, the highs, lows and surges of Filidei's score. There is also room left for the performances to bring real human depth to the situations. Chloé Briot has challenges aplenty in balancing the woman's containment of her feelings with her overflow at the conclusion. The singing range is accordingly difficult, but she gives a great performance. There are intense performances also from Boris Grappe as the man and Yael Raanan-Vandor as the female neighbour, but even the acting performances from the children are superb and contribute to the dramatic and emotional situations.
Links: L’Opéra Comique, ARTE Concert