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Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, November 2012

The casting is outstanding…Bass-baritone…Hubert Claessens carries the story as Guru, his imposing vocal presence easily projecting the cult leader’s power. Soprano Karen Wierzba’s Iris is touchingly vulnerable and sweetly sung, and contralto Marie-Noële Vidal adds solidity to the relatively two-dimensional Marthe, Guru’s mother.

Special note should be made of the role of Marie, the one character who never falls under Guru’s spell. Writing the part for an actress—in this case his wife—to set her apart from the others is the composer’s coup de théâtre. Whether reasoning with Guru’s followers, or standing alone against the final silence, screaming in anguish, her character represents sanity against the insanity of those who sing their roles. It is a stunningly effective conceit. Sonia Petrovna is magisterial: dominating in her confrontations with both the leader and the led, and convincing as the voice of conscience…

Petitgirard is an eclectic composer…The amalgam is both accessible and compellingly contemporary.

The engineering of this Hungaroton Studio recording is ideal: clean and detailed, yet full and richly colorful as would be expected in this wonderful venue. The large orchestra…is splendid, and Petitgirard uses it brilliantly. The Budapest Studio Choir and the Honvéd Male Chorus, which play such a pivotal role in the opera, are first-rate ensembles. The sextet À La Carte Vocal Ensemble represents the six new converts with character and technical perfection.

Guru is an intensely moving experience, splendidly performed… © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, March 2012

However, listening to this recording convinced me that Guru has all the prerequisites for a thrilling and engaging production. The theme is topical, the dramatic build-up of tension is relentless and the intensity of the music can at times be almost unbearable. The interplay between soloists and chorus is suggestive and intensification is created through repetition. There are few if any longueurs and the musical language is accessible, also to listeners not accustomed to contemporary music. The prologue is a very ‘catchy’ choral piece…

The orchestra is large and colourful…which Laurent Petitgirard employs with utmost skill. Besides the six named soloists there is a vocal ensemble…. Iris’s long solo at the beginning of act III, when she bemoans her child is such an instant; very touching it is too and sung sensitively by Karen Wierzba….the main burden of the solo singing falls on Guru himself. This is a big important role for a bass-baritone with dramatic and expressive potential. Hubert Claessens fulfils the requirements admirably. Marie is a speaking role and Sonia Petrovna lives the role with fine sense of nuance.

The recording leaves nothing to be wished.

The drama and the music are an engrossing experience and I hope I will one day get an opportunity to see a live performance. In the meantime this excellent recording is a good substitute. © 2012 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Christopher Ballantine
Opera, March 2012

Vocally, the recording is superb. Hubert Claessens is charismatic in the title role, his strong, seductive baritone at once commanding and beguiling…The chorus and smaller parts are finely controlled, and the orchestral playing is incisive.  The composers himself conducts-excellently. © 2012 Opera

Danielle Buonaiuto
Operagasm, October 2011

…all performers involved submit fine performances, especially Hubert Claessens in the title role. His rich tone and impeccable diction impart the authority required of Guru. Sonia Petrovna…is impressive as Marie. Her voice is strong and her musicianship obviously good—the text never comes off as stilted… Karen Wzierba is appropriately ethereal as Iris. They are supported by the fine cast of secondary leads and the Budapest Studio Choir as the disciples, who have a rich, blended sound that alternates between lovely and strident as the music calls for it. Led by Laurent Petitgirard, the performance is tight and polished and serves the music well.

We live in modern times, and this modern opera is more accessible than most I hear of. Petitgirard…is a composer who provides a range of materials and a high-quality recording with which to engage that will attract an interested audience, and maybe this will help Guru become a work that does endure.

Stephen Eddins, October 2011

Petitgirard is a musical eclectic and makes use of a variety of contemporary techniques, but 20th century French composers like Poulenc and Messiaen are among the most obvious influences, and his style is essentially lyrical. His versatility as a film composer serves him well in his depiction of dramatic situations. Petitgirard is a master of orchestration and the score is full of magical, mysterious sonorities, like a hissing chorus that sounds like a stage full of lightly rolled cymbals. It’s skillful, appealing, and often striking music, and should interest fans of new opera. The composer leads the Budapest Studio Choir, the Honvéd Male Choir, and Hungarian Symphony Orchestra Budapest in a spirited, dramatic performance. Bass-baritone Hubert Claessens is impressively commanding in the title role. The part of his antagonist, Marie, a skeptical disciple who dares defy him, is a spoken role performed with ferocity by Sonia Petrovna, the composer’s wife. Tenor Philippe Do and soprano Karen Wierzba are wonderfully effective in supporting roles. Naxos’ sound is clean, detailed, and well-balanced.

Bertrand Dermoncourt
Classica, September 2011

Laurent Petitgirard understood that a good opera needed a good story.

A contemporary opera chosen as the Record of the Month? This is the first time since the last efforts by John Adams, or since a composer by the name of Laurent Petitgirard in 2000, and the release of the Naxos recording of the outstanding work Joseph Merrick, Elephant Man (first as a CD then as a DVD after the world premiere at the Nice opera house; see our critique in issue number 27 of Classica). Now, ten years later, the same composer has presented a new opera on a “difficult” subject, and quite a challenge it must have been. Guru offers a description of the realms of folly on an island where a character both megalomaniac and charismatic rules over an “apocalyptic” sect. Three well designed acts, written with great dramatic efficiency by Xavier Maurel, tell the tale of the would-be prophet, the Guru leading his followers and their children to their death. As the charlatans in the master’s entourage degenerate into dissent and conflict, the believers wait for an imaginary journey towards truth. The one woman, Marie, a recent member of the sect, offers resistance and will be the sole survivor. Turning her back on the prevailing folly, she stands out from the others: she does not sing, but speaks, so the role is for an actress, and here it is the composer’s wife, Sonia Petrovna, who is quite remarkable. The recording is the world première of Guru (as yet unstaged), with Petitgirard conducting a fine selection of Hungarian musicians who are soloists with the Orchestra of the Budapest Festival and the Hungarian National Orchestra. He also has the good fortune to be backed by a cast with great commitment, featuring, in the role of the Guru, Hubert Claessens, the wonderfully expressive bass-baritone with perfect French pronunciation. Guru is an opera both tragic and militant, taking a clear stance against mental manipulation, and is based on the 1978 Jonestown massacre where the terrifying mass suicide saw more than 900 people perish. Another link may be found with the Order of the Solar Temple [Ordre du temple solaire] led by Joseph di Mambro. In the end, such references are of little importance. The Guru’s island symbolizes alienation by the sect in all its tragic folly, and the work of art produced has immense expressive force and unusual intensity. It is an opus displaying great maturity, conveying an ardent message of human values that deeply permeate the work. The writing and classical narrative structure of Guru did not break with the conventional rules of opera. Petitgirard understood that a good opera needed a good story, complete with characters existing through their musical presence and focusing the attention of the audience, with scenes that work, and—yes—a touch of pathos. The vocal lines can be deciphered, the text is intelligible, the melodic themes beautiful, the rhythmic writing opulent, and the orchestration varied—all clear evidence of supreme mastery, of the ability to convey genuine emotion to the audience. The style, while traditional, has highly individual harmony (with greater variety than Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man), and becomes increasingly tense, taking us to the edge of the abyss in the Guru’s suicidal spiral. By now Classica readers have realized that they are likely to be overwhelmed on hearing this new opera on a very contemporary subject. So which reader, which artistic director will have the bright idea of staging a production of Guru? It may be hoped that the director of the Nice opera, Philippe Auguin, who seems determined to produce the work in 2013 with the same cast as the recording and stage direction by Daniel Mesguich, might soon confirm his program.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2011

Completed in 2009 and here recorded before its first public performance, Laurent Petitgirard’s Guru deals with the power religious sects can exert. Reflecting the tragic death in America’s Jonestown when 918 people died, Guru is set on a remote uninhabited island where Guru has taken his followers to prepare for life’s ultimate journey. Their only food comes from seawater prepared by their ‘scientist’ Carelli which, they are told, will lead to their transparency as they go to the celestial kingdom. The opera’s opening scene finds Guru preparing to receive a new batch of followers that includes Marie. Informing him she has come to destroy him, Guru is now so convinced of his own powers, that he believes she has been sent as the final trial of his fortitude and that he will eventually convert her to his beliefs. In three acts it has an inevitability as it reaches its conclusion, Marie, who is distinguished from the rest of the cast as a speaking role, pitted against Guru. In the traditions of 19th century opera, it is in a series of arias, ensembles and choruses, Petitgirard writing in a tonality that is coloured by a harmonic language we find in the generation that followed Puccini. The preparation for the real story, which occupies much of the first act, is functional, and only in the second act does the opera have that forward momentum. That is equally true of many famous operas, and once the action is underway it is a gripping score. The name role is for a bass-baritone, Hubert Claessens’s powerful voice carrying that impression of a person able to dominate his flock, while, Iris, the woman who gives him a child, has that innocent quality captured by Karen Wierzba’s soprano. Sonia Petrovna’s Marie is in that long line of declamatory French actresses, and does not seem a person one would argue with. Of the remaining principals I would pick out the tenor, Philippe Do, as Victor, his light lyric voice carrying a telling third act aria. The chorus and orchestra are so compelling you would imagine this has come at the end of a long series of performances, but it is a studio recording that precedes its stage debut. The supplied synopsis does need far more detail and you have to download the French libretto and translation into German and English from the Naxos website.

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