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Acclaim for American premiere of Laurent Petitgirard’s Opera Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man by the Minnesota Opera

The American premiere of the opera Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, from Laurent Petitgirard was a great success. Petitgirard composed his opera in 2002. Read here excerpts from a review of the performance in Opera News:

Review by Joshua Rosenblum
Opera News, May 2006

ST. PAUL, USA — Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, Minnesota Opera
Bravo to Minnesota Opera for presenting the American premiere of Laurent Petitgirard’s opera Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. With its haunting, poignant score and its provocative, skillfully woven libretto by Eric Nonn, Elephant Man has the distinct feeling of a modern classic. The story of the hideously deformed Englishman Joseph Merrick (1862–90), who spent the last years of his life in residence at London’s Whitechapel Hospital, is familiar to many via Bernard Pomerance’s Broadway play and David Lynch’s 1980 film. Petitgirard and Nonn’s richly composed realization of Merrick’s life presents few obvious heroes or villains. Merrick himself was sung rivetingly by countertenor David Walker, whose every unearthly utterance transcended his abject circumstances. (Petitgirard composed the role for contralto voice but told this writer that Walker’s versatility of timbre and communicative power won him over.)

Petitgirard’s lush, enveloping melodies (at least four of which I could walk out humming) are based mostly on the octatonic scale, a series of alternating whole and half-steps that forms an eight-note scale, as opposed to the seven-note scales of the standard major and minor modes. The result echoes Petitgirard’s great predecessors Ravel and Poulenc, and the sumptuous chorale-prayer for the patients at the hospital is a not-too-distant cousin of Fauré’s “Pavane” (and just as gorgeous). Varone’s choreography made its most profound impact here, as the dancers, with consummate balletic grace, find themselves alternately drawn to and repelled by Walker’s Merrick. This is a breathtaking scene — profound and universal — and at the end, one could have heard a pin drop in St. Paul’s Ordway Center. The May 13 performance, expertly conducted by Antony Walker, had an impressive level of polish and ensemble for the opening night of a challenging new work.


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