The Power of the Mob: C(H)ŒURS at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

Verdi/Wagner – C(H)ŒURS

Soprano – Reisha Adams

Koor Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Symfonisch Orkest Opera Ballet Vlaanderen / Alejo Pérez.
Stage director and concept – Alain Platel.

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Ghent, Flanders, Belgium.  Sunday, April 10th, 2022.

The first decade of the twenty-first century was a time of turbulence – the Arab spring, the Printemps érable, and the great recession, all of these fed into our collective consciousnesses.  In retrospect, with the subsequent rise of the far right, now in power in the UK, Hungary, Poland, and who knows where else next, war in Ukraine, not to mention the post-truth world of the US Republican party, we live now in an even more turbulent time.

Photo: © Filip Van Roe

It was in this context of global upheaval during that opening decade of the millennium, that the then Artistic Director of the Teatro Real, Gerard Mortier, commissioned his fellow Gentenaar, Alain Platel, to produce a hybrid piece of theatre, C(H)ŒURS, combining choruses and preludes by Verdi and Wagner, with dance and movement and premiered in Madrid in 2011.  Of course, the choice of Verdi and Wagner to provide the musical background to the evening was not accidental, both of whom having lived during periods of revolution and upheaval.  Furthermore, this wasn’t a conventional operatic evening, or a succession of greatest hits for an easy Sunday afternoon in the theatre.  Rather, Platel has given us a challenging piece of theatre, one that uses music and movement as equal partners.  It also provides a splendid showcase for the house forces – chorus, orchestra, and ballet – used with imagination and flair.

Photo: © Filip Van Roe

The evening is effectively a series of stage pictures – some of which are perhaps more readily comprehensible than others.  In many respects, the evening feels like watching an art installation, albeit one with a big live opera chorus, as well as vigorous dancers.  The evening certainly starts in an arresting way, the ‘dies irae’ from the Verdi Requiem emerging from darkness, the chorus making a massive sound, overwhelming the listener and making the entire room seem to shake.  The evening concludes with the ‘libera me’ fugue, taking us into nothingness.  I must admit that some of Platel’s stage pictures were quite bewildering – I’m not sure why the dancers appeared to have a group epileptic fit to the pilgrim’s chorus from Tannhäuser.  The group synchronized hand movements that accompanied the Traviata Act 1 prelude as an epilogue to the evening, also left me rather perplexed as to their symbolism.  

Photo: © Filip Van Roe

Where Platel’s staging hit particularly hard was in his portrayal of a growing mob, emerging as a reaction to the nostalgic pain of ‘va, pensiero’.  The physicality was astounding – dancers and chorus throwing themselves into active, complex movements.  The sight of a stage full of people, moving with extreme physicality, stamping on the stage, violently gesticulating, brought to life the anger of that opening decade of the millennium – the implications of which are still with us today.  Indeed, one could say that Platel’s work was almost prophetic.  Seeing the chorus holding aloft a banner with ‘The revolution eats its children’, was perhaps a reminder that some of the issues that powered the anger back then, are not only still with us today, but also power the populist movements and promises of easy answers to complex questions that have created such hardship in the UK, Brazil, and USA, to give only three examples. 

Photo: © Filip Van Roe

It did feel, however, that the evening was perhaps twenty minutes too long.  There were a number of moments of silence, with some aimless perambulating that felt a little de trop and made the evening lose tension and drag unnecessarily.  That said, a sequence where one of the dancers asked the company to find someone who resembles them on stage, or if they believed in true love, was particularly striking – a reminder perhaps of what unites us, but also perhaps what divides us.  Having each of the chorus members come to the front to say their names individually also brought out that this wasn’t just a faceless mob, but real people with real preoccupations.  By incorporating fragments of speeches from Greta Thunberg and Bart De Wever, combined with chants in support of the Ghent soccer team, Platel has given us a work that is very much of today and of now. 

Photo: © Filip Van Roe

Given the multidimensional nature of the evening, the musical side was a significant component of a complex whole.  Under their Music Director, Alejo Pérez, Jan Schweiger’s chorus gave so generously of themselves.  The volume they created was astounding, yet the tone was always firm and focused – no war of vibratos here.  The sopranos and mezzos pitched the opening of the ‘agnus dei’ from the Verdi Requiem from the air, and sang those unaccompanied octave phrases with impeccable accuracy.  The tenors and basses sang the Tannhäuser pilgrims chorus with sensitively modulated phrasing, the lines coloured with delicacy and warmth.  Chorus member Reisha Adams stepped out to lead the closing fugue of the ’libera me’, with a generously vibrating soprano, confidently sung, and soaring to a ringing high C.  Together with that staggering physicality, this was an evening that highlighted all that this superb chorus can achieve.

Photo: © Filip Van Roe

The orchestra was on similarly enthusiastic form for Pérez.  The trumpets were a bit accident-prone in the ‘tuba mirum’, but they most certainly made an impressive noise.  Pérez conducted the Lohengrin prelude with loving care, voicing the music with exquisite lyricism – and the strings rewarded him with gossamer light soaring phrases that seemingly hovered on the air.  Pérez also gave us a delightfully lilting ‘va, pensiero’, able to bring out precisely that nostalgic beauty that gives this chorus such resonance.  Hearing Pérez lead all these excerpts so convincingly led one to want to hear a complete Lohengrin or Verdi Requiem from him.  The quality of the orchestral playing throughout was excellent. 

Photo: © Filip Van Roe

This made for an interesting if perhaps flawed evening in the theatre.  Flawed because it did feel that it dragged in places and could have lost fifteen minutes or so and had even tighter impact.  That said, by revising the cultural references and making this piece very much of today, Platel has given us a piece of theatre that reflects on who we are and how we got to where we are.  Indeed, during the mob scene, when the cast pulled out and waved banners in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, the entire audience erupted in applause.  He has also given us a fine showcase for all three main performing groups of the house, proving that this is a company that definitely deserves to be followed.  The evening was rewarded with an instant and generous standing ovation from the Gentenaar audience. 

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