As minister for justice under François Mitterand, the French lawyer and politician Robert Badinter played a key role in the abolition of the death penalty. Badinter serves as librettist for composer Thierry Escaich’s opera Claude, based upon the short story Claude Gueux by Victor Hugo. The text, and Escaich’s colourful and compelling score – by turns brutal and scintillating – make this opera something of an event. Premiered at the Opéra National de Lyon in March 2013, Claude is deeply serious, angry, passionate and demanding, dramatically (if not musically) in the tradition of Berg’s Wozzeck and Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten.
The title-character is a precursor of Hugo’s Jean Valjean, a decent man forced by social and economic conditions to take to the barricades (in Badinter’s version of the tale), for which he is incarcerated at the notorious Clairvaux prison. No sooner has he arrived than a fellow inmate is gang-raped; Claude intervenes, an act of bravery that establishes his decency. A friendship develops between Claude and the delicate young man he has saved, which in the opera becomes sexual and a source of emotional sustenance for both men.
Badinter’s tailoring of the Hugo does it no violence, updating the tale’s psychology, heightening its intensity and making explicit what is merely implied in the 19th-century original. Escaich’s music is tightly controlled thematically, with melodic cells and accompaniment patterns recurring with dizzying inventiveness. Messiaen and Dutilleux are never far from hand; and when the drama reaches a critical point of violence and retribution, Escaich explicitly recalls patterns and textures from the Turangalîla-Symphonie. Escaich is an organist, and perhaps that has shaped the music as well, including the prominent use of the chorus, the musical repose of several of the opera’s most striking scenes, and a tendency to build, by sonic accumulation, huge layered, overflowing fortissimo climaxes at critical points in the drama.
This DVD captures director Olivier Py’s original staging of the work, which uses a large revolving set to establish the cells of the prison, the enclosure of its walls, the labour of its inmates and the office of the brutally capricious prison governor. It is a beautifully filmed and unrelentingly bleak drama that unfolds without break in 19 compact and well-structured scenes (including prologue and epilogue). It’s hard to imagine another singer matching the vocal stamina, physical commitment and athletic power of baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou. Brazilian countertenor Rodrigo Ferreira sings the role of Albin, Claude’s friend. Ferreira’s voice can be dry at times but the role and musical line are extraordinarily demanding, and Ferreira’s timbre has a touching vulnerability which offers rare moments of vocal contrast in an opera dominated by male soloists.
Jérémie Rhorer conducts the orchestra and chorus (capable of terrifying murmurs and haunting background colour) in a performance that builds to a truly striking denouement. This is Escaich’s first opera and it shouldn’t be his last. It is the rare work of lyric theatre today that makes a truly moral claim on our attention, an ambition too often neglected in the interest of prettiness, sentiment and entertainment.