Notes and Editorial Reviews
Italian/English libretto included.
Pascal Dusapin (b. 1955) is one of the two or three most prominent French composers of his generation. This is somewhat surprising, as his music does not fit easily into a contemporary French aesthetic paradigm. While deeply focused on sound as the primary aspect of his music, Dusapin has never followed either the strict formalist constructions of post-serial composers, nor the rationalized harmony of overtone relations advocated by the “spectralists.” His music remains defiantly intuitive, at times even messy, relative to Gallic standards. In this sense, he is an outsider who’s somehow been accepted inside. His most direct ancestors are Varèse
and Xenakis, the latter of whom was his teacher. Like them, his music is made up of roiling sound-masses, though it tends to be more continuous and less blocklike in its flow than either. There is a deep sense of some sort of underlying chant in most of Dusapin’s pieces. Usually one hears a strong central tone, even a mode of some sort, which guides the pitches. But the notes are often smeared and stretched, bent out of shape to heighten their expressiveness.
Dusapin is a prolific composer, but over time he’s shown an increasing gift for, and interest in, vocal and dramatic music. In Fanfare’s Classical Hall of Fame (26:6) I singled out his La mélancholie as an exceptional oratorio, one whose dramatic arc and surprises pack a punch. It also was the product of deep intellectual engagement with its subject, featuring a dazzling selection of texts, yet it wore its erudition lightly (another Dusapinian trait). It demonstrated an obvious operatic flair, and by now its promise has been fulfilled in four operas, three of which I’ve heard, and one of which I’ve actually seen staged. Perelà: Uomo di fumo (“The Man of Smoke”) is the most recent entry, and marks a major step in the composer’s evolution.
Perelà is based on an early 20th-century novella by Aldo Palazzeschi, a surreal fable with transparent Christ-imagery (the composer adapted the libretto from the source himself, using only the words of the author). The eponymous protagonist arrives at a mythical country and immediately seizes its inhabitants’ imagination with his otherworldly nature—yes, he is nothing but smoke. His name comes from the three women who seemed to have created him: Pene, Rete, Lama (one thinks of Norns, of Macbeth’s witches, etc.). After an initial rapturous welcome and interviews with the country’s leaders (Queen, Banker, Archbishop), he is given the honor and responsibility of developing a new legal code. Then one citizen, Allora, is so smitten by Perelà that he tries to be like him, and immolates himself. This death suddenly turns the populace against their erstwhile hero, and in almost no time he’s on trial and banished to an eternal imprisonment. It’s unclear at the end whether or not he escapes from his confinement, but that very ambiguity is completely in keeping with the tone of the text.
What makes this opera striking in Dusapin’s output is its very “traditionality.” The last opera of his I encountered, To Be Sung (in a live performance in New York), was based on a Gertrude Stein text, and was as elliptical, continuous, and anti-teleological as its source. But Perelà has set pieces for different characters, old-fashioned choral crowd scenes, and a real plot. It uses piano, harpsichord, and percussion often in direct tone painting. Unobtrusive but mysterious electronic interludes link scenes. At times (as when an onstage band adds an Ivesian touch), it evokes popular musical tropes. Most of all, it is genuinely melodic.
I must emphasize that said melody is hardly traditional bel canto. But neither is it the sort of atonal parlando that characterizes so much opera from the second half of the 20th century. Dusapin’s phrasing is slow and spacious. Broad string lines provide a deeply breathing framework on which vocal lines can be hung, in a counterpoint of musical waves.
Above all, the sound of the piece¬—ample, modal, keening—projects a deep loneliness. It’s curious, because the composer (whom I know a little) is a man of great open spirit, of true bonhomie. But there is an aching sadness at the core of this music, a sense of the impossibility of human connection, an evocation of the profound silence that surrounds every human and resonates like a mute bell. And yet, this is not a trendy existentialist exercise. There is a genuine poignancy in the very sound of this music. It doesn’t speak so much of alienation as of genuine tragedy. For that, I have to salute Dusapin. Yes, at times the music may seem a little too slow, lugubrious, or ponderous. But ultimately, it feels authentic and unafraid to deal with unfashionably real issues of life and death for the human spirit.
This is a recording made from concert performances (as is usually the case now for large-scale contemporary works, even in Europe), and the sound is more than sufficient, with the ambient noise minimal. Dusapin tends to write most effectively for his female leads—Isabelle Philippe as the Queen, Chantal Perraud as Alloro’s Daughter, and Nora Gubisch as Marquise Olivia di Bellonda, each get to take a star turn with arias that emphasize extremes of range and expressionistic intensity. In the title role, John Graham-Hall provides a steady presence, and is most notable in his effortless popping out of falsetto from his normal singing voice in the subtly climactic aria “Il codice di Perelà” (“Perelà’s Code”). For a sense of Boschian grotesque, Daniel Gundlach as the Archbishop and Gilles Yanetti as the Parrot provide a sinister comedy. The pictures of the production suggest a grand guignol surrealist approach, somewhat in the spirit of Ligeti’s Le grand macabre.
In the end, this leaves one with a sense of substance encountered. In its willingness to express direct feeling without indulging in Hollywood histrionics, the opera provides a fine example of a “middle way” between current European and American aesthetic extremes that is in no way “middle-of-the-road.” Highly recommended.
Robert Carl, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Perelà, Uomo di fumo by Pascal Dusapin
Martine Mahé (Alto),
Nora Gubisch (Mezzo Soprano),
Friedemann Röhlig (Bass),
Scott Wilde (Bass),
Niels van Doesum (Bass),
Nicolas Courjal (Bass Baritone),
Daniel Gundlach (Countertenor),
Chantal Perraud (Soprano),
Isabelle Philippe (Soprano),
John Graham-Hall (Tenor)
Montpellier Opera Orchestra,
Montpellier Opera Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1955; France
Length: 121 Minutes 21 Secs.
Be the first to review this title