World Premiere of Benjamin, Dernière Nuit in Lyon
The German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin committed suicide in September 1940 in a village on the French-Spanish border rather than escape and emigrate to America. The reason for his decision has fascinated scholars and historians; and one can understand why the composer Michel Tabachnik and the writer Régis Debray might have thought that it would make a good subject-matter for an opera, to be presented at the Opéra de Lyon’s Festival pour l’humanité with its focus on the fate of the Jews. Set in the last night of his life, Benjamin, Dernière Nuit consists of a series of encounters between the philosopher and individuals who played an important part in his intellectual and personal life. It moves towards the conclusion that that life was full of contradictions, and that the complex mix was the man, thus explaining his passivity and inertia at the end. So far, so good. But, as a medium for communication, opera must engage the emotions as well as the mind and this it signally failed to do. The dialectic of Debray’s libretto was too arid; the happenings too impersonal; and, while the music was mostly effective in mood-creation as a background to the various tableaux, it did not do more than this. Nor was John Fulljames’ production helpful. Perhaps to underscore the complexity of Benjamin’s character and intellect, it was itself too complex with too much activity on the stage and – worst of all – a constant stream of video footage to provide a commentary on the various encounters. The surfeit of visual images made concentration on the text and music difficult. One could only feel sympathy for the conductor Bernhard Kontarsky and the excellent Opéra Lyon Orchestra, as well as a sizeable cast of singers and actors, who struggled courageously to make their mark but failed to arouse the enthusiasm of the large audience.