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Laurent Petitgirard: The Elephant Man
29 Jan 2006

PETITGIRARD: The Elephant Man

Perhaps instead of waiting for the next great new opera, focus should be on finding the next great opera composer.

Laurent Petitgirard: The Elephant Man

Jana Sykorova, Nicolas Rivenq, Robert Breault, Valérie Condoluci, Elsa Maurus, Nicolas Courjal, Magali Léger, Mari Laurila-Lili, Nice Opera Chorus, Nice Philharmonic Orchestra, Laurent Petitgirard (cond.)

Marco Polo 2.220001 [DVD]


This person would have a great love for the art form, a grasp for how to mate modern orchestral textures to an evocative lyricism, and, last but not least, an innate understanding of how music can convey truths about human experience, especially when tied to a tightly conceived narrative. Do we have such a composer on the scene today?

November 2002 saw the premiere of a new opera by composer Laurent Petitgirard, his first effort in the genre, and Marco Polo has released a DVD of a live performance held at the Nice Opera house. The Elephant Man portrays the life of Joseph Merrick, a man suffering from a horribly disfiguring disease. His story is familiar both from a successful stage drama of the 1980s and David Lynch’s esteemed film, with John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins. Petitgirard composed a score for a libretto by Eric Nonn.

Nothing really new is brought to the scenario. The first of four acts focuses on Merrick’s life as a carnival freak. Then a Dr. Treves takes him to his clinic, where a beautiful nurse offers her sympathy. In the second half, Merrick begins to chafe under the observations Dr. Treves puts him through, and then in the fourth act, realizing he will never be less than a freak to the world (and with his disease progressing), he dies.

As compared to the film, the portrayal of the carnival owner (called Tom Norman, sung with charismatic sleaze by tenor Robert Breault) suggests a real affection for Merrick. And Dr. Treves comes across as less sympathetic than the conscientious physician Hopkins portrayed. The basic trajectory and mood of the story, however, remains essentially unchanged.

This is problematic for an opera, for Merrick never really interacts with the other characters, so that dramatic tension never develops. When Merrick ends act two in despair with cries of “Pity me,” the opera verges dangerously near becoming just a high-toned equivalent of the freak show portrayed in act one.

However, Petitgirard reveals himself to be a potentially fine opera composer. His mostly tonal score doesn’t sound like a regressive adaptation of older techniques, and yet it doesn’t belabor the monotonous clichés of so much contemporary music. Petitgirard has a particular skill for writing dramatic, musical recitative passages, even though some of those scenes (such as the act three confrontation between Treves and a hospital overseer named Carr-Gomm) go on too long. A composer as dramatically acute as Puccini would have asked for such scenes to be trimmed.

The many choral set pieces also have a searing power, and a final statement of a theme associated with Merrick, played by solo violin onstage as Merrick dies, may be one of the best tunes any new opera has had in quite a while.

So while the opera cannot exactly be called a success in itself, as a platform for introducing a composer of great potential, it has much of interest.

The singers all give committed performances. Jana Sykorova, in a latex suit, brings a warm contralto to Merrick’s soulful declarations of pain and longing. As the golden-haired nurse Mary (in an improbable white nurse’s uniform, slit up to the waist on one side!), Valérie Condoluci sings as attractively as she looks. Nicolas Rivenq as Treves doesn’t seem to have a very large voice, but he succeeds in putting across the conflicted concern of the character.

In a small role as a coloratura diva, Magali Leger spins out some incredibly high-lying lines with amazing ease. This doesn’t add much to Merrick’s story, but does help to break up the suffocating mood of the later acts.

The production has clever touches, but also some misfires. At Treves’ clinic a free-moving platform holds Merrick’s “room,” with the tiniest bed – hardly larger than a chair – imaginable, which looks ridiculous, especially every time Merrick approaches it as if he would like to lie down on it, a quite impossible task. At a later point Treves appears from under the stage in a sort of prompter’s box. What that is about, your reviewer cannot begin to say. And at the end, a double of Merrick appears during the death scene. Confusing at first, this gambit actually became quite effective when it allowed Merrick to die at one end of the stage while still interacting with his fears and hopes as he passed away at the other end.

Petitgirard conducts his own score, so a more caring and knowledgeable performance would be hard to come by. If the opera finds its way into other houses, hearing other conductor’s take on the music could make for a rewarding experience, despite the opera’s unsatisfactory dramaturgy.

At a little over 2 hours, 45 minutes (on one disc), The Elephant Man on DVD makes for an intense, if claustrophobic experience. If Petitgirard can find another libretto that inspires him, perhaps besides lavishing his musical talent on it, he will also evaluate it for dramatic weaknesses and pester his librettist as Puccini and Verdi tormented theirs. That second opera might confirm that Petitgirard truly has the gift of opera composition.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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