I’ll confess it. I am a bloodthirsty opera fan.  I’m not above judging the quality of a work by the size of the body count at the finale.  After sitting through Traviata or Boheme all evening I’m often disappointed when only one person dies in the last act. All the principals are dead at the end of Tosca. Now that’s an opera.  I want Samson pushing down the columns and wiping out all those pesky Philistines.  The nuns in Carmelites being led to their deaths with the sound of the guillotine written into the music ?  Bring it on. 

So, imagine my unabashed glee while reading the synopsis of Laurent Petitgirard’s new opera, Guru. A cult leader who, by the conclusion of three swift acts, has been responsible for the death of his newborn infant, the child’s mother, his own mother, his two closest associates and, finally, his entire sect.  That’s a lot o’ dead people. I’m down.

Petitgirard has scored over 160 films, starting in the 1970’s, and has been concentrating on classical music since the early part of this century.  His first opera John Merrick, The Elephant Man was premiered in Prague in 2002 and and recorded on video at its second production in Nice.

His music is definitely of a “school.”  Within the first ten minutes I felt like Miss Debbie from Romper Room holding her magic mirror up to the TV screen and saying, “I hear Honegger and Enesco and Messiaen and what are you doing in there, little John Adams ?” Actually, I wish I’d heard more Enesco but, more on that anon.

The opera takes place on an island of allegorical origin as a group of new disciples arrive to join those already in the Guru way. After a brief introduction, by the financier Victor and the scientist Carelli, the new disciples get their first taste of the Guru philosophy. His search is for truth and transparency.  Which is apparently why everyone is subsisting on a diet of a seawater mixture provided by Dr. Carelli. Yee-ah.  There’s a lot of double-speak and answer back and forth between Guru and the chorus.

Among the new arrivals is Marie, who has been sent by the librettist to be the sole voice of reason in this opus. Therefore, she never sings and only speaks her role.  It’s an Opera see, so only the insane people sing, a universal truth seems to have escaped dozens of composers up until now. Because, even though Marie isn’t singing, our composer has written her actual music and metered out exactly how her lines should be delivered.  Kinda’ puts the kibosh on any sort of interpretive  freedom.  I’ll leave you to imagine a performance of Otello where Desdemona intones her lines in rhythm.

Marie introduces herself with the line, “I have come to destroy you”.  Naturally she’s escorted out right away with the rest of the new hires. Let the brainwashing begin.

Just as Guru thinks he’s about to get a little peace the other thorn in his side shows up, his girlfriend, Iris.  She’s worried because the child they just had doesn’t seem to be doing so well on the seawater diet. Not that she gets to spend much time with the baby since Guru’s mom has taken over care and feeding and keeps the infant locked in the sanctuary. They duet and doublespeak at each other for a couple pages and then Guru sends her away so he can end act I with an aria claiming,”I am eternity”. Curtain.

I admit I was intrigued by what happened so far.  Musically I hadn’t heard anything new yet and I was hoping for more from the scena at the finale.  Orchestrations sounded very seductive at moments and, from the sound of it, the timpani were being paid double time.

Act II takes place in the sanctuary which Marie has broken into to get a gander at the new baby Jesus. She hears Marthe, Mother of Guru, come in to feed the sacred infant the seawater concoction. Then all the disciples show up demanding a chance to see the Chosen One.

Marie incites the crowd and Iris shows up also demanding her child and while this actually starts to build to something musically the child expires (of course) and then it builds a little more and I’m hoping for Enzo Grimaldi to show up and torch the place so we can finally get the big concertato but, pretty quickly, the act sputters to a close.  Dammit.

Act III is set precariously on a precipice over looking the sea. “How convenient”, you say?  Just wait.

After a brief orchestral prelude Iris walks in all Suor Angelica about the death of her bambino.

She has a whole two pages in the libretto and I snuggle in for what is obviously going to be the big hit single from this show.  But, no, she simply drones on and her aria ends with a whimper. The stage directions say she throws herself off the cliff but, I didn’t hear it in the music. I was listening too. I even played it back.

The Guru shows up with the whole family for a picnic at said scenic spot and Dr. Carelli brings the refreshments.  Seems everyone’s gonna have a little drinkie and then we’re finally going to achieve all that truth and transparency they’ve been working towards.  First Mother of Guru turns on him and tries to stop the impending sacrifice by talking sense to everyone.  Guru strangles her on the spot.

Then, just as Guru is pressuring Dr. Cavalli to be the first to toast, troublesome, talkative Marie shows up dragging Victor the accountant.  He appears to be leaving with the bank accounts. Victor tries to expose Guru for who he is and the chorus answers back with a continuous and repetitive hissing which is inventive and interesting. There’s a rounding figure in the music here portraying agitation and mental confusion. Then they rip him to shreds. Musically I think Victor’s death may be the highlight of the score because, honestly, for the first time what happens on the stage also happens in the orchestra: a novel concept!

Dr. Caralli finally gets his drink, (you know he’s parched by now) and then it’s bottoms up for everyone and there’s a lot of moaning and groaning as the chorus goes down in sections.

Guru and Marie are left facing each other and she dares him to drink and he does.  Dying he says he can finally see, “The Truth”.  The music once again whimpers to a close and then Marie lets out an enormous wail/scream/cry. Kind of like Barbra at the end of Yentl except without Michel Legrand on a triple fortissimo underneath her.

I have to say that the whole work left me with an enormous feeling of opportunities lost, almost as if Petitgirard was afraid of his own material.  Small rumbles in the orchestra—where there should be the thundering voice of God or, whomever—the death of the infant, the uprising of the sect, Iris’ suicide, Marthe’s murder, Victor’s apparent disembowelment by the crowd and Carelli’s first drink of the draught: these all should have sounded like something more than they did.

The real tragedy in this piece is its uncommonly fine libretto by Xavier Maurel.  Naxos provides a link to it online for downloading.  It’s a serious work that never panders or turns unintentionally funny. No small feat for any opera libretto let alone one on this subject.  It does rise to moments of near poetry. Oddly it is printed with no punctuation.

The casting is solid.  Herbert Claessens is the lead and he’s a fine singer with a solid bass-baritone. Iris is sung by soprano Karen Wierzba and Marthe, Guru’s Mother, by Marie-Noele Vidal, an alto. Both have interesting voices that suit their characters without anything special to recommend them. All of them are underused vocally but kept busy counting like mad.

The tenor singing Victor the accountant, Philippe Do, has the devil’s own time with his short and desperate outburst in the last act. Petitgirard thus joins the pantheon of composers who have no idea how to write for the tenor voice.

The spoken Marie is Sonia Petrovna, whose French is excellent, but she’s hindered from giving a real performance by the fact that her every line has been metered out.  Boo.

The Hungarian Symphony Orchestra of Budapest is conducted by the composer and although this is the first recording there is no mention anywhere in the small, but complete, liner notes of an actual staged performance. The orchestra does fine work and the recorded sound is exemplary for the label.  Sometimes I find their engineering a little muddy. I should appreciate Naxos for even being willing to stand behind this new work.

Not bad all the way around but, truly, too many good opportunities for music making missed. Even though the orchestrations are stylish the acts are written in pieces with no long arcs.  I couldn’t help thinking what dramatic writing Bartok or Stravinsky could have wrung from this libretto.