Christof Loy’s production make an eloquent case for the philosophical thoughtfulness of Guercœur

FranceFrance Albéric Magnard, Guercœur: Soloists, Chorus of the Opéra national du Rhin. Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg / Ingo Metzmacher (conductor). Opéra national du Rhin, Strasbourg, 30.4.2024. (CR)

Opéra national du Rhin’s Guercœur © Klara Beck

Director– Christof Loy
Designer – Johannes Leiacker
Costumes – Ursula Renzenbrink
Lighting – Olaf Winter
Chorus master – Hendrik Haas

Guercœur – Stéphane Degout
Vérité – Catherine Hunold
Giselle – Antoinette Dennefeld
Heurtal – Julien Henric
Bonté – Eugénie Joneau
Beauté – Gabrielle Philiponet
Souffrance – Adriana Bignagni Lesca
L’Ombre d’une femme – Marie Lenormand
L’Ombre d’une vierge – Alysia Hanshaw
L’Ombre d’un poète – Glen Cunningham

Albéric Magnard’s Guercœur (composed 1897-1901) is an allegorical opera – perhaps more akin to an oratorio given its moral, quasi-religious theme – which nearly didn’t survive, as the full score was lost in the destruction of his house at the beginning of World War One, which also claimed his life. That seemed to bear out the prediction of the work itself (the libretto written by Magnard, a man of notable principle and progressive thinking but who laboured under no delusions about humankind’s and society’s imperfections) in which the figure of Truth proclaims that humanity will see a time when harmony and enlightenment will reign, but not for some time yet. The score was reconstructed by Guy Ropartz from a vocal reduction, and it is claimed that this is only the third staged production the full opera has received since its posthumous premiere in 1931 (and the first in France since then). But, more than a century since its composition, it can hardly fail to stir an audience to consider how much closer (or not) we are to that utopia, even after all that happened in the twentieth century.

In the opera, the title character is a political leader who has died suddenly. Act I starts two years later when he is already bored with paradise, conceived by Magnard as a humanist rather than Christian one, with the female, trinitarian personification of Truth (Vérité), Beauty (Beauté), and Goodness (Bonté). Guercœur wishes to return to earth where he left his faithful wife Giselle and a well-ordered society to which he had imparted democracy. Those goddesses try to persuade him not to go, but only permit him once Suffering (Souffrance) tells them that he did not experience her manifestation in life. He soon undergoes it in Act II, however, with the disappointment he experiences on his return to earth where he finds that Giselle has betrayed her vow of devotion to him and is now partnered with Heurtal; and the people are divided and agitate for a dictator, which role Heurtal is only too ready to assume, abandoning the aspiration to freedom and liberty he had learned from Guercœur. On dying a second time, he is readmitted to paradise and forgiven – like Parsifal, in a sense, he is made wise through suffering and compassion (the German surtitles pointedly use the word Mitleid) to gain a sombre insight into reality, even if Magnard doesn’t explicitly offer an answer as to how the world might progress to the utopia which Truth hopefully envisages for it.

In his new production for the Opéra national du Rhin, Christof Loy desacralizes the celestial, eternal embodiments of those principles, but recasts them in an environment typical of his stage productions generally. Here they subsist as a sombre, listless community of disaffected bourgeois individuals – of roughly the mid-twentieth century as far as one can tell from the costumes – in an otherwise empty setting. In Act II that revolves to an exactly similar environment for the scenes on earth in which Guercœur (accompanied by Suffering) encounters again the people of his earlier life there and forgives Giselle. A narrow cul-de-sac with an arcadian scene like a Claude Lorraine painting is interposed between the two realms corresponding to heaven and earth, and through which Guercœur and Suffering briefly pass.

Opéra national du Rhin’s Guercœur © Klara Beck

The implication seems to be that the notions which Magnard embodies as supernatural beings are found – even if only as something illusory or imperfect – in this world, in which all the characters here interact, rather than deferred to some mystical realm, and the arcadia glimpsed as a narrow sliver can only be realised, if at all, from within the activities and relationships which humans conduct in it. In a production that is otherwise so subdued and still, it is telling that the impassive Guercœur is first moved to emotion when the Shadow of a Poet also encourages him tearfully not to return to earth, reminding him of his own experience that ‘time overcame words and ideas…when my disciples might have restored me with their passionate support, they left me’, and so Loy has Guercœur embrace him in compassion. That singular act of agency by him is repeated when he forgives Giselle, and Loy appears to contrast, or rather even to complement, that by the totally opposite principle of resignation and stasis in making a point of Guercœur’s recumbent position on the stage several times when he languishes in dissatisfaction or bodily death, and Heurtal is also seen in the pose. Nevertheless, however much Loy may urge acceptance of what has passed, he also has Truth address her exhortation for the reconciliation of reason and faith, and the development of humankind in love and freedom in the future to us, as she and the people of paradise face the audience directly and the lights in the auditorium come up. On Guercœur’s second lapse into death, Loy has the Shadows of the Poet and the Woman stand over him beneficently, surely to argue in terms Magnard would have approved, that it is the responsibility of artists driven by principles of humanity rather than religious superstition to bring about that better world. (Given the low calibre of so many of Guercœur’s real-life politician successors, one can hardly expect much from politics.)

As a French composer influenced by Wagner, it is probably not surprising that the score sounds somewhat like the German master, filtered through more rarefied French timbres, like Massenet or Chausson. Although, known as the ‘French Bruckner’ on account of his four sizable symphonies, Magnard adopts a certain lucid monumentality in the opera’s music, and a sustained, solemn melodiousness in its interludes. The result in Ingo Metzmacher’s hands, with the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg, is to create a generally hallowed atmosphere which unfolds unhurriedly but assuredly, rather as if Bruckner had written an opera – especially with the offstage chorus of souls in Acts I and III somewhat like strains from his motets. Or something like a Gallicised Parsifal springs to mind, played with a quiet refinement in place of a more searing tension and pain. The chorus also paint subtly muted, blended tones as the spirits in heaven, but are impulsive and purposeful as divided supporters and enemies of Guercœur in Act II.

Stéphane Degout exudes consummate patience and control with the quiet ardour of his singing in the lead part. Eugénie Joneau and Gabrielle Philiponet similarly express a consoling resignation as Goodness and Beauty respectively, decently supported by Marie Lenormand, Alysia Hanshaw, and Glen Cunningham as the three Shadows. By contrast there is a steely passion in Catherine Hunold’s command of Truth’s music and over the assembly of paradise, urging first Guercœur then the world at large; and Adriana Bignagni Lesca cultivates a moodily dark richness of tone as Suffering, impelling Guercœur to the necessary lesson he has to learn. Antoinette Dennefeld is a vocally elegant, persuasive Giselle, inciting sympathy as she muses on her guilt about betraying Guercœur and explains her predicament, while Julien Henric demonstrates an agile fluency which aptly expresses the somewhat maverick, wily character of Heurtal. Although there is little drama in Magnard’s opera in the normal sense of stage action, this performance and Loy’s production make an eloquent case for its philosophical thoughtfulness.

Curtis Rogers

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