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Séisme review - Opera Magazine


May 2024, Opera Magazine

FRANCE Montpellier

'Immersive’ has become a cliché in 21st-century theatre, one that raises hackles when directors use it as an excuse for lazy stagecraft. The blame/credit for the word’s modish ubiquity lies chiefly with Punchdrunk, the company who begat the form as we know it today via shows that implicate audiences to an engulfing degree. Opera-goers who saw their English National Opera collaboration on The Duchess of Malfi will know the reeling sense of engagement they can achieve.

Full marks for ambition in calling a new opera ‘earthquake’—Séisme—but was the Opéra National de Montpellier perhaps overreaching itself? Actually, not. This 45-minute experience (February 10) was both a piece of art and a purposeful assault on the senses of hearing, vision and touch. It was the work of a young but assured creative team led by the London-based Hungarian director Franciska Éry, Haitian poet-librettist Ar Guens Jean Mary and the Anglo-Chinese composer Alex Ho.

The dominant figure was Jean Mary. We saw his face blown up to vast proportions on the four surrounding screens; we heard his voice as he declaimed his own texts, words that we also read since they were projected everywhere in both French and English. His poems were arresting in their power, a cry to save the planet written with stiletto focus in a voice of wild originality that was hobbled only by wearisome references to bodily functions that anthropomorphized the restless earth into a mess of orgasms, menstrual cycles (emanating from the Red Sea, naturally) and rapacious sex organs.


Photo credit: Marc Ginot

Ho, a 30-year-old London-based composer who won the UK Critics’ Circle Young Talent award two years ago, is a man in demand and his score for Séisme indicates why. The 11 sections were entirely pre-recorded, which made it possible for 19 performances of the show to be given over a single weekend and thereby added to the sense that here was less an opera than an installation. The music, scored for ten growling instruments (three trombones, four double basses and three percussionists) along with solo soprano (Hwanyoo Lee) and bass (Albert Alcaraz), was insidiously bold and evoked seismic disturbances in sounds that were quite without cliché. Yet earthquake effects are one thing; Ho’s interpolation of music for children’s choir was quite another. The elegiac beauty of his writing for the 40 voices of Montpellier’s Opéra Junior, expressive music devoid of condescension or simplification, was a highlight of the work.

On arrival, the 50-strong audience yomped through a fake but natural undergrowth of burnt cork, their ears singed by a sound picture that was enhanced by a web of 20 contact microphones hidden beneath them. A hundred human feet and a similar number of scrabbling hands magnified the underground disturbance into a wash of musique not-quite-concrète (for the environment was more biodegradable than brutalist). Each perambulating spectator wore a hi-tech gilet that conspired with Ho’s score and Julien Guillamat’s sonic effects to send shudders through their very torso. Working together, united yet unaware, the audience was creating its very own seismic event. Now that’s immersion.

Mark Valencia

Find out more about Séisme.

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