Jonathan Dawe’s opera Nero and the Fall of Lehman Brothers
“A new modernity, a modernity that speaks to the world, and a modernity that, by the way, attracts a young audience and awakens consciences……….”
“We will associate BOP’s success with the overflowing imagination of the director Maxime Genois……” –Christophe Huss, Le Devoir, Montreal.
rough English translation:
An opera on Wall Street: striking
The wheel spins. And it turns very fast. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, opera was notoriously in crisis. Question of incongruity between a fundamentally melodic art, research on the vocal expression, but also a goal of rupture whose complex ins and outs go beyond the scope of this article. Among these supporters, however, it can be argued that breaking with models, being in the vanguard, it was also somehow claim to be misunderstood, or even incomprehensible.
Pushing the cork further, cutting off the public became a sort of pledge of “supposed genius”. These are basically the terms of the philosopher Luc Ferry in the context of some fine digressions on Nietzsche, and I willingly admit that during some evenings of the company Chants libres, I devote myself to thinking of Luc Ferry.
Opera close to us
If this is my preamble, it is because the young and inventive company Ballet-Opéra-Pantomime (BOP) appears, just like the ECM + and its “graphic operas”, as the flag bearer in Montreal for the moment. A new modernity, a modernity that speaks to the world, and a modernity that, by the way, attracts a young audience and awakens consciences.
And let us not be told that this modernity is the result of compromise. It is the crossroads of culture and reason. Pure logic, in fact. By choosing a subject of contemporary history, the composer takes the risk of being trivial. But BOP has found one that is particularly clever.
Jonathan Dawe, not to be confused with the prolific English opera composer Jonathan Dove, author of Flight , which takes place at an airport, is a professor at the Juilliard School.
Jonathan Dawe, therefore, had the idea, exploited during the last decade, to integrate the imaginary and the baroque world to the contemporary universe. It is, in a way, his trademark. Dawe does not hesitate to draw on the ancient material that makes it clash with contemporary language, as in a symphonic work around the Arts florissants of Charpentier, created by James Levine in Boston in 2005.
He then applied this principle to opera with Cracked Orlando in 2010 or, two years later, Così faran tutti (They’ll All Do It!) - an antecedent to Mozart’s Così fan tutte , an idea also exploited by Eric Emmanuel Schmitt and Nicolas Bacri in Così fanciulli in 2016.
The year 2016 is precisely that of the creation of Nero and the Fall of Lehman Brothers . The stock market crash of 2008 is symbolized by the bankruptcy of investment bank Lehman Brothers. On a dramatic level, this financial crash is (symbolically) paralleled by the burning of imperial Rome in Nero’s time (64 AD).
The characters who evolve in this Wall Street in moral and economic perdition are therefore the Emperor Nero; Poppea, his wife of the time (we are talking about the year 64); Seneca, who in the Coronation of Poppea of Monteverdi dies for trying to moderate the impulses of Nero (then still married to Octavia) to Poppea; Agrippine, mother of Nero and heroine of an opera by Handel. A chorus of bankers completes the cast.
The text is contemporary, but sometimes mixes typically haendelian texts, for example in the soliloquy of Agrippine at the time when she is fired. Lyrics haendéliennes on a typical air of the American opera.
On the contrary, we sometimes hear signatures of baroque music on contemporary raw lyrics. The musical entanglement is done between Handel, on one side, and a contemporary language sometimes mathematized, which goes up to integrate the fluctuations of the stock prices (without this technique is really noticeable for the listener). The instrumental ensemble includes strings, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, tuba, harp, piano and timpani
The idea of presenting this show in a church basement is a major idea of BOP’s inventive artisans, who continue to bring fresh blood to the Montreal music scene. Compared to the video excerpts of the New York creation of 2016, it is clear that the BOP production has benefited from a superior care as regards the scenography, very astute, reproducing in the manner of a movie set a Brokers office that integrates musicians sitting at compartmentalized offices.
A convincing result
The show is certainly strong, especially since the spectators are a few meters from the action. The fact that the protagonists call for old referents really only appears in the second act.
However, do not expect too close parallels. Agrippina is not the mother of Nero, but a confirmed and lucid banker, whose lucidity will eventually annoy Nero. The character of Seneca is problematic. In Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea , an obligatory dramaturgical reference, he is Nero’s “guard-fool”. Here, he does not confront Nero and teams up with Agrippina before betraying her to save her skin. Has the character been usurped by Jonathan Dawe or did he want to deliberately show, turning a pure junk, that money corrupts even the healthiest minds?
The character of Poppée poses me the most problems: it floats in the opera. We do not really know if it is Nero’s wife or a kind of appointed mistress. Moreover, in the real story, Nero was madly in love, while the Wall Street Nero is devoid of feelings, even desire.
The three bankers have an important role in the overall dynamics of the show. They embody and symbolize triumphant cynicism, the beginning of trouble, then the collapse. The trio is led by a formidable bass vocally and dramatically: Matt Boehler. He burns the boards and trains his colleagues.
Located in the middle right of the office, Hubert Tanguay-Labrosse directs twenty instrumentalists attentive to a score that draws the best of a true culture of baroque opera, contemporary music, mythology - it’s about the choice of Paris, which refutes both Juno’s ethic and the beauty of Venus, ends the opera.
The ensemble ranks (contrary to the JFK of the Opéra de Montréal) on the good side of the scourge of the balance of contemporary American creation. The score may have been slightly truncated, however, since the New York creation referred to three dancers, a scene in a club of dancers and characters from Mars (countertenor and Mercury, which we do not have seen.
We will associate BOP’s success with the overflowing imagination of the director Maxime Genois. A scene among many others. When Seneca arranges his business, while he has been (temporarily) fired, these are toys that he carefully packs. Toys with characters. All these millionaires played so casually with the lives of people …
On the vocal side, BOP did a faultless one minus one. Geoffroy Salvas is in a dazzling form in Nero, and the fact that Shea Owens holds the comparison says a lot about his talent. The bar is high and the mezzo Allegra De Vita is fully hoisted. So, in such a company, to meet with Poppy, Molly Netter is very strange and almost unreal.
Fortunately, this young soprano just sings, but she has a dry white voice that does not sound any way. Let’s say that his most obvious use would be the echo in the air ” Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen ” of Cantata IV of the Christmas Oratorio. For an even more graphic comparison, let’s say that beside Miss Netter, Suzie LeBlanc (archetypal baroque voice) is Lady Macbeth!
An incomprehensible distribution error, therefore, which fortunately does not scuttle a project worthy of the greatest interest.
Jonathan Dawe’s opera. With Geoffroy Salvas (baritone, Néron), Molly Netter (soprano, Poppée), Shea Owens (baritone, Seneca), Allegra De Vita (mezzo-soprano, Agrippine), Matt Boehler, Bruno Roy and Arthur Tanguay-Labrosse (the three bankers ). Instrumental ensemble, direction: Hubert Tanguay-Labrosse. Scenography: Félix Poirier. Costumes: Constance Chamberland. Lighting: Hugo Dalphond. Directed by Maxime Genois. Salle Guillet of the Notre-Dame-du-Saint-Rosaire church (800, rue du Rosaire, Montreal), Friday, June 15, 2018. Resumed Saturday 8 pm and Sunday 4 pm.