In Claude-Michel Schönberg’s chamber opera Beau Travail (1991), a doomed man stands watch over his crumbling country home, as machinery hums underneath and a fog permeates the skies. The title is literally a door-slammed shut by a bird, and besides, as Christine Fisher, the leading lady in Christopher Alden’s new production, observes, “There’s always a door to this world.” That’s what she needs to find the way through the “emotionally torturous” havoc that is often reduced to plot developments in traditional opera houses.
Mr. Alden brings lightness and joy to what is at times darkly menacing, celebrating the profound nature of deep emotion, while mitigating the overwhelming force of good and evil in direct contrast to the character of Carmen.
He builds the second act as if he was using the camera to tell the story, instead of orchestrating the music and telling the story through dramatic pacing and substance. A wedding scene moves at a glacial pace as if telling the same story over and over. Even soprano Katherine Jenkins’s high notes are big and absurd as she attacks the notes full of jagged edges. She does not hide the operatic bluntness in a role she has studied for over 20 years. She uses the music in the background rather than attempt to draw out the dramaturgical elements on stage, and repeatedly speaks about Beau Travail in the present tense. Although I found some of his speech awkward, the storytelling left much to be desired.
Nothing could subvert the tension in Ms. Jenkins’s voice when she receives the news that her husband, the human equivalent of a bird, has been killed by his own army after a lengthy struggle with man and machine. The style is brilliant, with orchestral running throughout and a fragmentary, yet transcendent arias by Thomas Adès set to themes in cello by Ryoichi Sakamoto. The orchestra’s relentless intensity has become a clarion call to escape the impending destruction — no more metal, drones, blasts of deep bass or artificial orchestral textures. It is a thrilling music to listen to as the stars fall.
Ms. Jenkins’s charisma is now scaled back by other singers, who play on the power of her voice, the playfulness of her personality, even the sexuality she is conveying to us through her facial expressions. Eventually this scene puts all our attention on her voice as she tries to hold back the emotions of telling her son why a shell-shocked French cavalry soldier from World War I will never be able to return home. At this point she sings, but not to us, rather to the characters on the stage to whom she speaks, and the reactions are to be expected.
In the end, many of us will be looking for ways to escape this world. It is life as Beau Travail would explain it, through the language of music.