, December 2004
"Laurent Petitgirards composing career stretches back to the 1970s. He has written a number of substantial orchestral scores as well as having an extensive catalogue of music for film and television (including the music for many episodes in the French Maigret series and Otto Premingers Rosebud). Petitgirard has a parallel career as a conductor and was the music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de France from 1989 to 1996.
Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man is his first opera, written to a libretto by Eric Nonn. In it he explores the life of Joseph Merrick, made famous in the film The Elephant Man but Petitgirard and Nonn say they have based their opera more on the facts of Merricks life whereas David Lynchs film was based on the memoirs of Dr. Treves, the doctor who supposedly rescues Merrick.
Petitgirard was attracted to the story because he wanted to deal with a dual personality. The opera portrays the duality between Merricks inner life and his physical appearance. This is a subject which seems to be highly suitable to Petitgirards technique as a composer. He is a supremely skilled orchestral technician, the orchestra plays a big role in the opera and Petitgirard uses it to some effect to comment upon and increase our knowledge of the characters. This has the useful effect of strengthening and deepening the continuous arioso in which the opera is written.
The opera is in four acts consisting of some twenty short scenes with a cast of eight major characters plus some seven subsidiary roles. This is a relatively large cast for just under 150 minutes of music. Apart from Dr. Treves and Merrick himself, you never get to know the other characters well. They seem to be foils for the composers exploration of the two lead characters.
Act 1 is set in a freak show and the major role in this act is the showman Tom Norman, a lively Robert Bréault, with his sidekick Jimmy, treble Damien Grelier. Dr. Treves (Nicolas Revenq in sterling form) intervenes and ensures the closure of the freak-show. Merrick does not sing in this act but in the staging we would see him in silhouette.
Between Act 1 and Act 2, Merrick’s life changes dramatically as he goes off with a travelling show before being abandoned and finally rescued by Dr. Treves at the London Hospital. We have to take all this for granted and the opera’s failure to address it is one of its biggest structural failures.
Instead Act 2 cuts directly to Merrick (the stunning contralto Natalie Stutzmann) recovering in the London Hospital, only gradually learning to speak and wary of revealing himself to other people. His strongest relationship is with the nurse Mary (soprano Marie Devellereau) though their scene must compete with substantial stage time given to Dr. Treves and the hospital staff.
In Act 3 Dr. Treves exhibits Merrick to other doctors and makes him something of a celebrity when he appeals for funds to help support him. We gradually realise that Treves’ motives have as much to do with his own renown as with Merrick’s well-being. Merrick’s confusion over the dichotomy between his own appearance and his interior feelings mean he rejects Mary’s feelings for him.
Finally, he is feted and becomes an object of adulation; he is wooed by a famous actress played by coloratura soprano Celena Nelson-Shafer, who copes well with Petitgirard’s stratospheric writing. Treves tells Merrick that his condition is worsening and Merrick goes into a decline, eventually committing suicide.
I loved Petitgirard’s very French sound-world and the musical style of this piece. In many ways it is old-fashioned. Musically its influences are French from the mid-20th century with barely a hint of Messiaen and Boulez. This style of writing has been decried in the past but times are changing and we are coming to realise that there is a place in our musical world for operas whose virtues include strong construction and secure understanding of the operatic form, along with fine musical craftsmanship.
All the singers in the opera are exemplary. Some, such as Sophie Koch as the Hospital matron, Eva Lukes, seem rather underused. But ultimately the show belongs to Rivenq’s outstanding Dr. Treves (he almost convinces us of Treves’ nobility of purpose) and to Natalie Stutzmann. Stutzmann’s low contralto voice is ideal for the role of Merrick, conveying a sense of his otherness and also, perhaps, giving a feeling for his lack of overt male sexuality due to his extreme disfigurement. Merrick sings far too little in the first half of the opera so that it is only very late on that we come to know him. Stutzmann brilliantly overcomes this problem with this role and delivers the final scene so powerfully that it is overwhelming.
With some varied settings and a multiplicity of scenes with a strong visual impetus (the showground, Dr. Treves’ presentation to the other doctors) and its drama punctuated by a fine series of choruses (strongly sung by the French Opera Chorus), this opera must work very well on stage. This recording was made in 1999 prior to the work’s stage performance and I wonder how my attitude to the work would have changed if the cast had sung their roles on stage first. I can’t help feeling that this recording, lovely though it sounds, fails to quite convince on all levels. As well as being ravished I wanted to be challenged, especially considering the subject matter; Petitgirard’s music just fails to address the sheer horror that the sight of Merrick must have caused.
Still Naxos are to be congratulated at bringing this recording out but it surely hampers a contemporary work if we are presented with a brief synopsis of each act and no libretto. We must be grateful that many of the cast display such excellent diction, but I feel that our knowledge of the opera is limited if we don’t have access to the text.
Cast, chorus and orchestra give a tremendous performance, strongly supported by Petitgirard conducting his own work. But I must return to the structure and drama of the work. Though I loved the sound of it and will return to it many times, there were occasions when I thought that we were listening to a tone poem with voices rather than a truly dramatic work. As I have said, perhaps my perceptions would change if I saw the TV recording of the work’s staging. And, after all, this recording did its work wonderfully well as it was crafted by Petitgirard to raise interest in his opera. Do try it."