30 May 2005


The appearance of a DVD of the Beaumarchais — Salieri Tarare is cause for celebration.

The work is an extraordinary curiosity; a child of the heady days just before the French Revolution, Tarare is the famous French writer's only opera and one of the Italian composer's rare French scores. First and most strikingly a work of social and political commentary, Tarare is also an entertaining work of theatre. Salieri's music supports these aims admirably and offers a few memorable moments of its own. As an opera form, Tarare defies easy categorization; it may be best described as a comedic satire dressed in the clothes of a sprawling 5 act lyric tragedy, complete with Prologue and a grand divertissement with dance.

This performance, from the Schwetzinger Festspiele in 1988, is a co-production of the Badishe Staatstheatre Karlsruhe and the Théatre National Opéra de Paris, and makes an impressive case for the work as a lively comedy. The production is remarkably well cast, directed with great imagination by Jean-Louis Martinoty, and energetically performed by Jean-Claude Malgoire and the Deutsche Händel Solisten. There are several cuts made, the only disconcerting one being the elimination of most, but not all of the overture between the Prologue and Act I.

The Prologue is the most unusual part of the opera. It poses certain theatrical challenges that do not seem well met in this production, however. Interestingly, the opera opens with a storm scene. The stage is here filled with emblems of the nations of the world and their emperors, each struck down in slow motion by an allegorical figure wielding death's scythe. It would have been preferable to have recreated, with the dance company, the pantomime of winds unchained described in the original stage directions, and to see them gradually calmed, the clouds dispersed, and a daytime countryside revealed, all in response to the musical score. What follows is a lengthy discourse between La Nature (Gabrielle Rossmanith) and the Le Genie de Feu (Klaus Kirchner) over the fates of each of the characters in the opera, whose shadows appear before them and whose souls they are about to awake. The discourse is convoluted, but filled with allusions to equality, class and power, science, character, and the creator.

Happily, from the first notes of Act I, we are in a world of action, where the author's philosophical point of view, though heavy handed, is made in lively metaphor. The setting is an Asiatic kingdom, where Atar, the king, (Jean-Philippe LaFont) is frustrated by the adulation his people confer upon the heroic soldier Tarare (Howard Crook). Atar conspires with the high priest of Brama, Arthénée (Nicolas Rivenq) and the priest's son Altamort (Hannu Niemelä) to abduct Tarare's wife Astasie (Zehava Gal), whom the king desires, and to get rid of Tarare. It sounds like the stuff of dramatic opera, but from the very beginning it is hilarious. This hilarity is aided considerably by the two European servants in the court — the eunuch Calpigi (Eberhard Lorenz), and his wife Spinette (Anna Caleb), who are, appropriately, dressed as Harlequins in surroundings of Asiatic exoticism (stage design by Heinz Balthes and costumes by Daniel Ogier). There may be in the libretto a little more threatening evil to Atar's character, but LaFont's comedic talents and his singing are delightful. Howard Crook seems exactly right as the earnest hero Tarare, and his 'Astasie est une Déesse' is an air both arresting and beautiful. Eberhard Lorenz helps carry the drama forward with brilliant and athletic humor as he manipulates circumstances to Tarare's advantage. The third act is primarily an extended divertissement, choreographed by Ann Jacoby. The wonderful conceit of this is that the 'exotic' elements are the Europeans, and it is very funny to see Atar and the long mustached Middle-Eastern soldiers trying to imitate a provincial French pastorale. The scene ends with a tuneful strophic Italian song sung by Calpigi that is cleverly and dramatically interrupted by the appearance of Tarare. At this point the work begins to take on the trappings of a rescue opera. The fourth act provides two musical moments worth mentioning — Astasie's passionate air, alternating with recitative, "O mort, termine mes douleurs", and a compelling duo reflecting the humorous emotional confusion of a scene of mistaken identity between Tarare and Spinette. In Act 5, Atar's plans fall to pieces. The subjugated Tarare is loyal to the monarchy to the end, however, despite the king's perfidy, but the soldier is still the object of the people's affections. Humiliated, the king then ends his own life, and the people, led by Urson, the captain of the guards, (Jean Francois Gardeil) give the crown to Tarare, which he reluctantly accepts. The final chorus hammers the moral home; "Mortals,.....your greatness comes not from your rank, but from your character."

The theatre at the Schwetzinger Festspiele is an intimate one, and it is a bit odd not to feel a greater presence of the audience and orchestra in the filming of this production. We wish to be laughing with the audience at this live performance, and to see the orchestra and conductor at work. Having eliminated the overture and thus the natural place to film the orchestra, the only time the camera focuses on the musicians is when the action happens to be brought to the edge of the stage. This is of course a small complaint in a welcome production of a fascinating opera that clearly reflects the ideas of its time. As Beaumarchais played a crucial role in financing the American Revolution, and Tarare was written on the eve of the Constitutional Convention, his social commentary will likely resonate with Americans, and we look forward to staging in this country soon.

Ryan Brown