L’archange, oper’installation: Genesis of a Creation

Par Patrick Mathieu in Theatre Forum (Canada), 1 mars 2006
L’archange is obviously a very hard and tense piece with powerful performance and visual elements. […] the most tangible proof of the effectiveness of a performance is the incredible silent silence that floats in the room between the judge’s last strike of the gavel, and the beginning of the applause.

A trial. The trial of the archangel of evil as a metaphorical interpretation of human’s incomprehension when faced with pure and unjustified horror.

Chants Libres, the new form opera company based in Montreal, was presenting its 13th production this last spring. The basic idea of the opera came to Pauline Vaillancourt’s mind as an emanation of the very particular atmosphere that was predominant in the months following September 11th. After the shock of the attack, the reaction of the Bush administration lead to the depressing feeling, at least outside the United States, of a total absence of individual freewill. In a certain way, there was hope that the horror inflicted at the heart of America’s most superb city, would actually generate questioning of the United States and of its allies international policies. By becoming a victim for once, the average American citizen would start to sympathize with the world’s other victims. Soon the Bush government propaganda and policies showed clearly what the reaction would be and it was not what people were wishing for. Humans felt doomed because war, horror and atrocities were again at their agenda, and felt damned because they had no control in avoiding it.

Working on this basis with the writer Alexis Nouss, the idea of setting a trial against evil came thru. Of course, evil, even personified as an archangel, cannot be incarnated. If its deeds are concrete, he avoids any kind of physical description, other than a mystical one. Only through is work can he be perceived and so, if there was to be a trial, it would have to be without his presence, by contumacy.

Another premise also had to be established before the libretto could be shaped: the question of time. Could a trial against evil be limited in time? If it is agreed, and it was, that evil existed for at least as long as human did, there is a good chance that our reflection on its action against and through us also dates as far back. Since the trial is a symbol of that reflection process, the unlimited aspect of it was decided and the opera would then be presented as a mere session of it. This point of view rendered the subsequent choice of witnesses more coherent since the number of cases presented was no more significant. The same applied to their type: there could be any kind of evil deed on observation, not limited to the most important and representative, since the infinite other instances of evil action in human history could have been heard at any other precedent or subsequent session.

With this in mind, Alexis Nouss sketched out a libretto focusing on the stories of three witnesses. Their texts constitute separated entities and do not interact. The three characters come up one after the others and tell their story, as would be the case in a real trial. Even if trials, especially public ones, often equal in drama and tension to some of the best stage works of the repertory (and sometimes to some of the best circus shows!), the format adopted presented the real danger of a lack of dynamism. On the other hand, the most obvious and efficient way to counter this, the introduction of dialogues or of other exchanges between the performers, could seriously undermine the strength of the text, since its expressiveness lays in the way the stories are told and not in a theatrical tension-building between characters.

A solution was found by the introduction of the judge character. Naturally, this entire questioning process was in phase with the writing: the judge was not added after to correct some possible problems, his character appeared while the witnesses’ texts were being created.

Setting up the context of the show in his first appearance, the judge acts like a logical link between the witnesses’ presentations. In the dynamic of the piece, he holds a similar function to the recitative sections of a baroque or classical opera, while the witnesses’ performances would be equivalent to the arias. But this is only true when the overall structure of the piece is under observation and cannot be said about the inner organization of each section. Each of the three witnesses appearances are self-sufficient and could be perceived as mini-operas by themselves. They do not express a single affect typical of baroque arias nor do they represent a mere slowing down of the action as in the classical style. The witnesses’ arias are closed forms, a fact well represented musically, since the judge, performed by a comedian, doesn’t sing while the witnesses do.

The judge also has a very important role in the drama itself. What could have been a mere circumstantial role focused on the mechanical aspect of the piece (the court is calling the first witness to the bar…) becomes the interpreter of the writer’s line of thought and an incarnation of the public’s reaction. In brief, a solo Greek choir.

So the general layout of the libretto is as follow:

  1. Judge first intervention
  2. First witness (the little girl)
  3. Judge second intervention
  4. Second witness (the artist)
  5. Judge third intervention
  6. Third witness (the Haitian woman)
  7. Judge fourth intervention
  8. The chaos (judge and the three witnesses)

Right at the beginning of the creation process, the idea of projecting a video in counterpoint with the musical and theatrical performance was brought up. It seemed the perfect tool to illustrate the content of the text, allowing, in a certain way, the evidences to be brought up in court. The public would therefore see, at a metaphorical level, the concrete consequences of evil’s work.

The concerns expressed in earlier works by Alain Pelletier (WorldTrade Opera, Persée.us.Méduse…) were so much in tune with the opera’s subject, that the choice of the visual artist was deemed obvious. The integration of the visual artist at an early stage of development procured great advantages since it allowed the simultaneous creation of the video, the music and of the stage design. In opposition with traditional opera, were a visual is juxtaposed to an already existing score, the creation of L’Archange often became a situation were the music was the last element added. As we will see later, this was allowed by the perspective taken by the composer and by the nature of his music.

The first visual element that had to be considered was how the projection will take place. It was decided that the physical elements used had to be pertinent to the show. Thus the video projection soon became a video installation and its form would greatly depend on the presentation space chosen.

Even if, for touring purposes, the presentation in a normal black box theatre was always in mind, for the Montreal premiere the creators were looking for a special alternate space that would package the show perfectly. That space was found at the Station C, a club that contains a lounge, an art gallery and a huge dance floor. Formally a postal station (hence the name Station C), a theatre and a sado-masochist gay bar of sulphurous reputation, the Station C preserved the ruins of its former identities. The general impression that emerges from the space can be resumed by the comment of one of the creator upon its first visit: “East-Berlin 1982”!

The particular part of the Station C that was of interest for the opera was the lounge area. A rectangular space that contains about 500 persons (in presentation, limited at 250 for visibility reasons), it is surrounded by a gallery that used to be the first landing of the steps leading to the theatre’s balcony. For safety reasons, what’s left of the steps and of the balcony are out of range for the public but can perfectly well be used for production purposes.

Considering the layout of the space, a global video installation where the entire action would take place was soon dismissed to be replaced by three video sculptures defining the physical space of each witness. The characters are thus assigned to one gallery and the public is standing down in the area defined by these galleries. The three video sculptures delimit the witnesses’ universes, while the judge, being a dynamic principle, doesn’t stay confined to his own space. The fact that the judge role doesn’t have video and musical support also encouraged a more physically active role.

Plan of the installation:

To create the sculptures, Alain Pelletier associated himself with the sculptor and visual artist Pascal Dufaux. The building blocks of the structures were the television screens needed for the video projections, 36 of them. The installations adopted forms closely related to the situations evoked by the witnesses’ texts and will be described in due time. The 36 television screens required for the sculptures (21 for the first one, 7 for the second and 8 for the third) allowed Pelletier to work in multi-channels, juxtaposing images when wanted and dispatching them to any number of television screens. So the actual range explored was from a single image on a single screen up to 36 different sequences on the 36 screens.

The music of the show was commissioned to one of Quebec most interesting young electro-acoustician, Louis Dufort. L’Archange is the composer’s first opera who until then had explore stage works mainly through music for contemporary dance companies. It is also worth noting that Dufort’s pieces often explore video and music relations.

The composition process was simultaneous to the creation of the video. Sometimes synchronizing the music from already finished visual and sometimes working the other way around, Pelletier and Dufort also attempted with satisfactory results to work separately after agreeing on a common direction and establishing timing frames.

The music proposed acts like an interface between the concrete text and scenic movement level, and the metaphoric video level. Without suggesting a single uniform approach, it can be stated that the singing belongs to the first level and the electro-acoustics to the second. One of the reasons for this comes from the fact that the vocal lines were composed in cooperation with the singers, their improvisation skills on the text acting as a foundation. This dual texture, quite apparent during the first witness performance, is never the less modulated throughout the piece, namely during the second witness apparition and during the conclusion phase.

The Production

L’Archange was premiered on April the 28th 2005 in Montreal and had a total run of nine representations.

Entering the room where only a very dim lighting is on, the public awaits the show while taking a drink as in a normal bar. When the opera gets underway, people have to move around to be able to stand in the middle of the space. Thus the transition between social and show time spans nearly the entire first presentation of the judge. This “off focus” moment repeats itself at each new section of the work. While the action changes from one platform to the other, the public turns around and adapts its position to get a better point of view. These crowd movements bring two advantages: no change of set is necessary and they soften the hardship of standing and looking up at the show for nearly an hour.

The introduction of the opera is made by the judge. Performed by a comedian (Jean Maheux), the judge character is a spoken role. Except for his last intervention, where the music begins to build up towards the finale, his appearances are never supported by music or video. Sitting in his space and declaring the opening of the trial’s session, he reads the following accusation:

“Headaches, toothaches, backaches, plague, cancer and cholera; hurricanes, cyclones and tsunamis; famines, slavery and deportations; homicides, patricides and genocides; and other disasters, cataclysms and calamities endured by humanity since it is humanity.” [1]

and calls for the first witness.

The story of the first witness is based on a local news item: a teenager girl was convicted for killing her abusing father. The text builds up around the girl’s obsession with the objects present in the basement where the abuses and the killing happened: the lamp, the father’s workshop with its screwdrivers, nails and the biggest hammer of all, the one she knew where to find even in the dark… The grandmother’s sofa, that was brought down to the basement after her death, becomes the symbol of the destruction of the girl’s world. Reminiscences of her loving grandmother, figure linked with the object, are superposed to images of the abuses.

The teenager (Emilie Lafortest) appears sitting on the edge of a gallery completely crushed by the huge structure of television screens that dominates her. The sculpture is an inverted triangle shape pointing to her, giving the impression that the images are actually emanating from her head. With the character sitting under the structure for its entire appearance, the video takes the front stage. Reflecting the text, numerous images of concrete objects move around the screens treated in way that makes them frightfully threatening. Terribly strong images of the grandmother mummified in plastic wrap and of naked bodies also are mixed in.

The girl’s performance gives the best example of the duality of the music. While the electro-acoustic works in relation with the video, integrating a lot of transformed concrete sounds (glass breaking, sounds of screws being stirred…), the performance presents a long song that emphases the text comprehension. The coherence of both levels is insured by common tension increases and decreases and by mutual synchronisation points.

The judge’s second intervention results from a trial normal procedure: after the first witness plea and in absence of the accused, who will take the archangel’s defence? Revising old cases, the judge stumbles against trials imposed upon artists, Goya, Joyce, Picasso, Hugo… Developing on Flaubert’s trial for Madame Bovary, he concludes that only the artists can justify evil, since only them are able to create beauty out of it. While reading the precedents, the judge steps down from his gallery space and walk through the public. Two members of the crew holding hand lights follow him while in the crowd, opening the way for his displacements and acting as portable follow spots. The turmoil created among the public is quite amazing and contributes to break down the actor/public barrier, in perfect harmony with the judge’s character.

The second witness is therefore an artist and her character is built out of the diary of the American poetess Sylvia Plath and is played by Fides Krucker. Completely obsessed with her body, both as source of pleasure and of pain, a parallel is established with evil as generator of beauty and horror. One of the striking elements of Plath’s diary is the position she takes as an external observer of her own self, like if the person analysing and the one being analysed were two separate entities. This is what the video installation translates. The singer is trapped between two articulated towers of screens. The towers are set on rails allowing for lateral movements and some screens can be turned. The performer interacts physically with the installation and its choreography is in close relation with the images displayed. The final sequence is probably the clearest example of it: while the video shows the singer “cutting up” her body with a marker, like if she was preparing for her own autopsy, she removes on stage the upper part of her costume in a gesture expressing at the same time abnegation, desolation and a bit of madness. Beautiful in its simplicity.

Some strong references to the socio-political world are also made. The body that is analysed and that decomposes under the pressure of sickness and aging is first presented as a visual quotation of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by two towers and ends with the gesture already mentioned .

This scene is also the moment where the libretto attains its greater strength. Not dealing with concrete facts like in the other two witnesses’ presentations, the writer is making another poet talk and it seems to serve him well. The beginning and the end of the section are illustrations of the tone:

It is not true that truth is true. If truth was true, we would only have to say true. We would only have to say ‘it hurts’ and people would understand. But they don’t understand. They never understand.” [2]

“Evil never holds promises. He promises to destroy but never destroys, since he destroys all the time. He perpetuates himself, he hurts and hurts again and hurts always. The remembrance of evil is still evil.” [3]

Without disregard for the other elements, it’s really the powerful scenic and vocal performance of Fides Krucker that constitutes the most striking part of this section. Using her voice as a mean to put forward her great dramatic skills, she sings, screams, mumbles and transforms her tone always in perfect concordance with the pathos implied in her role.

After another intervention of the judge where he is getting more and more panicked, the turn of the third witness comes up.

Also based on a true fact, the third witness is a Haitian woman (Fredericka Petit-Homme) who reads the letter she is sending for her son’s birthday. The letter talks of the mother’s pride that her son is managing so well, of the harshness of their lives in Haiti and of her happiness and feeling of security now that she lives in New York. The letter is dated September 11th and stamped by the post office of the west tower of the World Trade Center.

The installation takes the form of a line of eight screens in front of which the singer gradually passes. Something in it recalls the store windows of a commercial avenue. The video projects images taken while driving a possible itinerary from the women’s house to the World Trade Center. The images evolve beautifully from street level to the top of skyscrapers, opening up to the sky. Regularly appearing, some disturbing sequences of refugee camps, ruins and other images of urban disasters, interfere with the continuous flow of images of New York City. The music also emphasis that urban feeling using bits of much more traditional music, recalling the basic sound universe that unites every large cities.

The performer starts at the extreme left of the installation and walks up to the extreme right. Her very slow progression combined with the lighting, the make up and the costumes, give an airy and unreal quality to her presence. Her long displacement is often interrupted by choreographies that uses gestures that seems congenital to human nature (the dance, the recurrent movement needed to carry her long veil that brings to mind a family of gestures linked with the humble and the peasant…).

As soon as the last witness concludes, the judge cannot stand it anymore and adjourns the session. While he is protesting, the music starts building up toward the finale, the chaos. Managing the biggest musical tension for the end, the electro-acoustics builds up to a huge climax while the three performers sing a choral that floats over the sheer noise. At the same time, the totality of the television screens project on and off random images from the video.

This incredibly intense moment is really Dufort’s greatest achievement during the opera. It justifies the music in a piece where the text, the video and the stage work had, until then, the upper hand.

After peak point, the sound level goes slowly but surely down while the television screens get disconnected in a disorderly fashion. The chaos slowly refrains and the public is left with remains, ruins of what was there and with the mumbling of the judge that keeps repeating over and over again the same numbers: numbers of genocides’ victims.

L’Archange is obviously a very hard and tense piece. The stage direction and the visual aspects of the show have tremendous power. For a big part of the opera the music mostly supports a strong libretto, at least until the chaos, where it finally has a chance to take the front stage. This last moment opportunity should not be undermine, this is what really blows the show away. As all performers know, the most tangible proof that good results were achieved is the incredible “silent silence” that floats in the room between the judge’s last strike of hammer and the beginning of the applauses.

Notes

1. «mal de tête, mal de dent et mal de dos, peste, cancer et choléra, ouragan, cyclone et raz de marée, famine, esclavage et déportation, homicide, parricide et génocide et autres catastrophes, cataclysmes et calamités qu’endure l’humanité depuis qu’elle est humanité.»

2. «Il n’est pas vrai que le vrai soit vrai. Si le vrai était vrai, il suffirait de dire vrai. Il suffirait de dire: «J’ai mal» et les gens comprendraient. Mais ils ne comprennent pas. Ils ne comprennent jamais»

3. «Le mal ne tient jamais ses promesses. Il promet de détruire mais il ne détruit pas car il détruit en permanence. Il perdure, il fait mal et mal encore et mal toujours. Le souvenir du mal, c’est encore le mal.»

Page presse@9012 générée par litk 0.600 le jeudi 28 septembre 2017. Conception et mise à jour: DIM.