Sting Barks, Elvis Costello Rasps in Paris Pop Opera Premiere...
'Welcome to the Voice' at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris is intriguing enough from the cast list alone.
Sting and Elvis Costello are making their debuts as operatic singers. Their music, mixing pop and classical influences, is written by Costello's long-time keyboardist, Steve Nieve. Their libretto is by Nieve's companion, the French psychoanalyst and filmmaker Muriel Teodori.
The show was first performed, in June 2000, in a semi-staged version at New York's Town Hall. Last year, Deutsche Grammophon produced a CD with Sting, Costello and Barbara Bonney. Theaters, though, have been slow to jump on the bandwagon. The Chatelet is the first to give it the full treatment.
Perhaps this has something to do with the banality of the piece.
The story couldn't be simpler. Dionysos, a steel worker and son of Greek immigrants, falls in love with an opera diva and what she sings.
"My heart was ripped open," he confesses, "by this angel and demon music."
His co-workers try to talk him out of his infatuation and remind him of the proletariat's real heroes - "Rosa Lux, Zapata, Spartacus." To which he stubbornly answers: "And Mozart."
After the ghosts of Carmen, Butterfly and Norma, the diva herself appears. He tries to kiss her; a police inspector intervenes and is about to arrest the troublemaker when the diva stands up for her fan and declares her love.
"The voices bond us, don't you know what it is?" the lovers sing, to which the proletariat, suddenly converted to the upper-class tunes, responds: "Yes we know what it is, we all know what it is."
The history of opera is, of course, filled to the brim with trivial and sentimental librettos. What matters is the music, and there's the rub.
Nieve is an experienced pianist and arranger, yet it's hard to detect any personal style. The score, written for chamber orchestra and piano, wavers between lounge music, pop songs and a vaguely classical idiom, interspersed with jazzy trumpet and saxophone solos and the gentle gargling of a synthesizer a la Philip Glass.
It's more like a meditative song cycle than high drama - easy listening and easily forgotten.
Madame Teodori, who also directs the show, could do little to enliven it. The singers appear and disappear for their solos or stand stiffly around. The set (Bernard Arnould) is a stylized steel mill. A video with a red-hot forge and a lot of steam onstage are meant to acquaint us with the world in which Dionysos and his co-workers live.
Among the singers (all miked), Sylvia Schwartz as Lily, the diva, is the only serious contender. She has a pleasant voice and handles her top notes and coloraturas with ease.
Sting as the lovesick proletarian is his usual self, yet his husky bark mixes badly with his beloved's classically trained soprano. Costello, who rasps as the police inspector, has almost no voice left.
Wolfgang Doerner conducts an ad-hoc ensemble with the composer switching between the piano and the synthesizer.
'Welcome to the Voice' runs through Nov. 25. For details, see www.chatelet-theatre.com or call +33-1-4028-2828.
(c) Bloomberg by Jorg von Uthmann