World Première of Francesconi’s Trompe-la-Mort in Paris

A major event of the 2016-17 season in Paris has been the world première of Luca Francesconi’s Trompe-la-Mort. While any attempt to recreate in operatic terms a single volume of Balzac’s monumental Comédie Humaine might have been far too ambitious, the composer picked out a notorious villain featuring in three of the novels and built the lyrical work around him. As Francesconi had shown in Quartett, based of Heiner Müller’s adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (see my blog of 5 May 2015), he is adept at getting to the core of a literary work by focusing on individual characters and exploring their external and internal selves. So here we have the death-defying Vautrin alias Carlos Herrera alias Jacques Collin manipulating his naïve protégé Lucien de Rubempré to reveal the sordid realities of post-Napoleonic French society beneath the veneers of pomp and elegance.

The music, though modernist, communicates to its audience the glitter of social superficiality but more importantly the tension and anguish when relationships fall apart. Under the assured direction of Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki it was given a gripping performance. As Trompe-la-Mort, baritone Laurent Naouri most successfully overcame an announced indisposition, injecting Mephistophelian cynicism into the defiant vocal phrasing. He was ably partnered by Cyrille Dubois and Julie Fuchs as the tragic victims of his plotting. Among the minor characters, Ildikó Komlósi stood out for her brilliant interpretation of the intermediary Asie.

But it was, above all, the visual aspects of the production by Guy Cassiers and designer Tim Van Steenbergen which made the most lasting impressions. The central relationship between Vautrin and Lucien is presented on a stage totally darkened apart from a latticed backdrop and the lightened heads of the two protagonists. The drama of the luxurious society destroyed by intrigue is reflected in colourful illuminated pillars which descend from the flies and which include images of the Palais Garnier itself where the performance took place. So, we are left in no doubt as to the relevance of what we have been seeing and hearing to our own selves and the world in which we live.