CRITICISM | The beauty of the world: a successful opera that lacks a dose of emotion

Isaiah Bell incarne le nazi Hermann Göring dans La beauté du monde, à l

Isaiah Bell plays the Nazi Hermann Göring in The Beauty of the World, at the Opéra de Montréal.  (Photo: Vivien Gaumand)
Matthew Dalen plays Nazi Hermann Göring in The beauty of the world, at the Montreal Opera. (Photo: Vivien Gaumand)

The Opéra de Montréal presented last night the premiere of a long-awaited work, because it was postponed due to the pandemic: The beauty of the world, by Julien Bilodeau, on a libretto by Michel Marc Bouchard. All in all, a success, but which leaves little room for emotion.

We have here a rather conventional opera, in every sense of the word, which could practically have been written and composed in another era. This is not a reproach but a simple observation. I’m not of the school of thought that music written today should absolutely try to innovate and reinvent itself. In the context of an ambitious work like a full-scale opera, it can be content to be magnificent, and that is absolutely the case here. The music of Julien Bilodeau is beautiful and touching. In its design as in its production, The beauty of the world follows the codes and conventions of the great operatic tradition, and we find ourselves on familiar ground, without getting bored.

The booklet is based on historical events, namely the safeguarding of the main works of the Louvre during the Second World War. As the Germans were about to occupy Paris, Jacques Jaujard, an official of the Fine Arts administration, organized the evacuation of the museum’s collections to put them in safety in various places in the provinces. Michel Marc Bouchard and Julien Bilodeau therefore have a raw material of choice to tell a story and set it to music, which they do quite well.

Book and music

The booklet of Michel Marc Bouchard, rather simple, serves above all two purposes: to transmit a message and to let us know what the characters think, which often amounts to the same thing since the characters serve above all to convey this same message: art is important and it is necessary preserve the artistic heritage of humanity (notably against barbarism and fanaticism, whether political or religious). Mission accomplished, we got it. You could say they preach to an audience of converts, but it’s one thing to state a message, and another to illustrate it with real-life facts to put it into perspective.

I said above that the opera follows the conventions of the genre, but with one thing: in The beauty of the world, there’s no romance plot, an element that usually serves to add drama and make the characters feel more real and endearing. I’m not saying that a love story is mandatory, which would be ridiculous, but without intimate drama experienced at a second level of the main narrative, the characters remain more anonymous, with little affect and own thoughts. They are like pawns on the chessboard of a large party that is beyond them, which is, in short, the Second World War. It is such a vast historical event that unless we go into the personal and the intimate, it is difficult to recount episodes of it without giving the impression that humans are the helpless playthings of an incomprehensible collective destiny. In all historical narratives or the fictions inspired by them, the inner life of the characters is crucial for the reader, the listener or the viewer, who needs to share something with them to feel concerned and to immerse themselves in the work.

However, on the whole, we can say that there are few moments of emotion and that the characters of The beauty of the world aren’t very endearing, despite their brave hero status. They lack a dimension. By not really knowing what they are feeling, it is difficult for us to feel something too. The first act is more documentary than tragic, and it is only in the second – the most successful – that the dramatic tension really works and finally touches us, while the monstrous Hermann Göring terrorizes Jaujard and his entourage. Like History with a capital H, which has little regard for those who live it, Michel Marc Bouchard uses its characters as pawns by recounting this lived event to serve a greater purpose: to convey a message and make us think. And it achieves its goal, but turns out to be a little too didactic.

The musical language of Julien Bilodeau is generally tonal, intelligent, balanced, sought-after yet approachable, interesting to listen to, and holds together aesthetically. By accomplishing a kind of synthesis of Western music from different eras, it makes many nods to its predecessors, but leans more towards post-Romanticism. He offers us an exceptional treatment of the choirs, which constitute the most accomplished aspect of his composition. We can also say that the composer respects the public and addresses our intelligence. On the one hand, he does not try to shock unnecessarily, on the other he avoids certain easy clichés. He worked on his score in such a way as to maintain a constant interest.

There are two types of choirs: those which are on stage, and whose role is traditional; they describe the action by pushing it forward, like a kind of narrative engine. The others, in the background, have a more harmonic role, and bring a particular color that we can consider as the more personal touch of the author, his signature, and the element of his music that will be remembered the better.

Layla Claire, Allyson McHardy and Damien Pass. (Photo: Vivien Gaumand)

Director and performers

The fairly classic staging, signed Florent Siaud, serves the work well and allows the action to unfold suitably in a fairly sober scenography, made up of realistic architectural elements in evolution. The movements are fluid and logical, the dramatic acting is well directed.

The Franco-Australian bass-baritone Damien Pass embodies Jacques Jaujard with a solid and controlled voice but he does not have, in my opinion, the presence on stage, the presence and the charisma necessary to play this leading role and convince us of the vital importance of his subject.

France-Bellemarre (Esther) is very good and perfectly in character. The same can be said of Layla Clairewho embodies the actress and woman of the Resistance Jeanne Boitel, andIsaiah Bellvery fair in Dr Bruno Lohse.

Allyson McHardy stands out by being particularly convincing in the role of Rose Valland, museum curator and also resistant. With her, you are never disappointed.

The Canadian tenor Rocco Rupoloa former member of the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal, is fantastic in the role of Alexandre Rosenberg, while the American baritone John Brancy (Franz Wolff-Metternich), winner of the Montreal International Music Competition 2018 is absolutely flawless. Since his time in the competition, his voice has gained even more depth and he moves on stage with confidence. The infamous Göring is played by Matthew Dalen, who pulls it off well, although his appearance on the scene could have been more resounding. Ultimately, Emile Schneider turns out to be a very good actor in the role of the young handicapped Jacob, son of Esther.

Under the inspired direction of Jean-Marie Zeitouniremarkable opera conductor, theMetropolitan Orchestra makes a rich contribution.

Go or not?

Without reservation, here we go! The beauty of the world is a successful opera in a high quality production with a substantial budget, with excellent performers, a story little told before, as well as a strong message and more relevant than ever in our time.

The next performances will take place on November 22 and 24 at 7:30 p.m., and November 27 at 2 p.m.


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