Sunday, September 4, 2011

Laurent Petitgirard's New Opera "Guru"

Guru – Premiered on Recording in 2011
An opera in three acts

Laurent Petitgirard (b. 1950)
Libretto by Xavier Maurel, based on an original idea by the composer
Publisher: OSF Productions

Guru - Hubert Claessens (bass-baritone)
Marie - Sonia Petrovna (actress)
Victor, Guru’s assistant - Philippe Do (tenor)
Iris, the child’s mother - Karen Wierzba (soprano)
Carelli, the sect ‘scientist’ - Philippe Kahn (bass)
Marthe, Guru’s mother - Marie-Noële Vidal (alto)

Budapest Studio Choir, Hungarian Symphony

Guru is the second opera by French composer Laurent Petitgirard and is a parable inspired by the American mass suicide of 918 people in Jonestown. While the plot does not state a specific time, place, nor culture (there are no references to traditional Asian cultures despite the titular character’s name) the hallmarks are apparently similar to how a cult typically forms: a secluded locale (a deserted island), a self-absorbed megalomaniac (the titular Guru), scheming accomplices and a mass of resigned, world-weary followers in search of some apparent greater truth. This recording is the world-premiere, released before a single live performance is staged.

According to the making-of video kindly provided by Naxos, Petitgirard and Maurel wrote this opera as a warning against those likely to join such cults. With that idea in mind, they set about creating a world where manipulation by a single person on a large group of people is possible, leading us into their thought processes and in turn questioning our own concept of reality.

Composer Petitgirard and librettist Maurel

The story starts with a group of new disciples arriving at the island where Guru holds court. His belief, which he shares with his breathren, is that human food containing calories and vitamins only prolong the decay of your mortal body, delaying your eventual release into the freedom of ‘transparency’. Hence he and his followers subsist on seawater, waiting for the day when Guru’s new-born son will become the first to attain this ‘transparency’ and lead the way for all of them to follow.

Foiling his plan are the other lead characters, including Marie, the sole contradictory figure without any ulterior motive (the composer has written her as a spoken character, albeit speaking fixed in rhythms to match the accompaniment, to reflect that she is the only sane character among this bunch of loonies), his accommodating mother who only saw too late how mad her son had became, Iris, mother of his new-born son, and Carelli and Victor who help to manipulate the disciples in return for what they believe to be monetary rewards. It eventually dawned on all of them that Guru is no longer a swindler but has come to believe in exactly what he preached, resulting in the highly dramatic and inevitable conclusion.

Musically speaking this opera is a sung-through series of monologues, the strange vocal lines composed to match speech patterns, while orchestration highlights the underlying mood of each line, shifting tempi and melodies rapidly according to what’s being sung. Having seen and reviewed the DVD of the composer’s first opera Joseph Merrick: Elephant Man ( and found it dithering in some places, I find this sophomore effort a much tighter experience, propelling the plot forward with urgent minimalist-style repetitions of key themes. I find his vocal writing as befuddling as before, the most melodic moments happening in the orchestra such as the preludes or when accompanying Marie’s spoken monologues.

Bass-baritone Hubert Claessons sings in a rough-and-tumble declamatory style, while Phillippe Do’s high tenor can match up to the Florezs and Brownlees any day. Karen Wierzba sings a lot of heart-wrenching well with her light, shimmering soprano. Marie’s hoarse declamation is rather unusual in a largely sung opera but her dramatic fireworks are quite breathtaking.

In short, this is not quite something you’d listen to on the train (unless you are very conversant in French), but if you can spare about 2 hours with the CD and its online translation, this promises to be quite a dramatic musical experience.

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