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ClassicsOnline Home » PETITGIRARD, L.: Guru [Opera] (Claessens, Petrovna, Do, Wierzba, Kahn, Vidal, Budapest Studio Choir, Hungarian Symphony, Petitgirard)
Prize-winning French composer Laurent Petitgirard has written accomplished music in many forms, notably symphonic and music for film and television, but it is as an operatic composer that he has received perhaps the greatest acclaim. His opera on the subject of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man [Naxos CD 8.557608–09 / Marco Polo DVD 2.220001] was hailed as “a compelling and moving score—the composer’s melodic gift is very much his own” (Sunday Telegraph). Guru, completed in 2009, is a work of similar stature. Ostensibly it concerns mass suicides in a cult, reminiscent of the 1978 Jonestown suicides, but Petitgirard’s pleas for humanity, and against manipulation, are expressed with tremendous, very personal power, and compelling theatrical immediacy.
By Bertrand Dermoncourt
Laurent Petitgirard (b. 1950)
An opera in three acts
Libretto by Xavier Maurel based on an original idea by the composer
Publisher: OSF Productions
Commissioned by the French State (Ministry of Culture and Communication)
The libretto received support from the Beaumarchais Foundation
Guru – Hubert Claessens, Bass-baritone
Marie – Sonia Petrovna, Actress
Victor, Guru’s assistant – Philippe Do, Tenor
Iris, the child’s mother – Karen Wierzba, Soprano
Carelli, the sect ‘scientist’ – Philippe Kahn, Bass
Marthe, Guru’s mother – Marie-Noële Vidal, Alto
New Disciple 1 – Andrea Csereklyei, Soprano
New Disciple 2 – Sára Dezsö, Mezzo-soprano
New Disciple 3 – Gabriella Galbács, Alto
New Disciple 4 – Lajos Fodré, Tenor
New Disciple 5 – György Philipp, Baritone
New Disciple 6 – Kornél Mikecz, Bass
Budapest Studio Choir and Honvéd Male Choir
Choir-master: Kalman Strausz
Hungarian Symphony Orchestra Budapest
Born in 1950, Laurent Petitgirard studied the piano with Serge Petitgirard and composition with Alain Kremski. He is an eclectic musician whose career as a composer of symphonic music (more than twenty works) and of film music (160 scores) is matched by his activity as a guest conductor the world over (Paris Opera Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, Orchestre National de France, Orchestre National de Lyon, de Bordeaux, de Lille, Bamberger Philharmoniker, Berliner Symphoniker, Orchestras of the Tonhalle, La Fenice, BBC, Utah Symphony Orchestra, Seoul Philharmonic and CBS Orchestras, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, National Orchestra of Spain, Moscow State Orchestra, China National Symphony Orchestra and others). In 1989 Laurent Petitgirard founded the Orchestre Symphonique Français which he conducted until 1996, also directing, from 1986 to 1997, the Festival and the Academy of Flaine (Haute-Savoie). He became music director of the Orchestre Colonne in Paris in 2005 and was re-elected from December 2012 until June 2017.
He has made some thirty records, notably of Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher and several world première recordings, including Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit in the orchestration by Marius Constant. Petitgirard’s recording of his own Cello Concerto, performed by Gary Hoffman and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, and Le Légendaire for violin, chorus and orchestra, with the work’s dedicatee, Augustin Dumay, as soloist, is available on Naxos 8.557602.
Laurent Petitgirard’s first opera, Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man, with a libretto by Eric Nonn, was first performed in French, in February 2002 at the Prague State Opera, conducted by the composer, with stage direction by Daniel Mesguich. Laurent Petitgirard recorded the opera with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo and with Nathalie Stutzmann in the title rôle (Naxos 8.557608–09). The opera was restaged at Nice Opera from 29 November to 3 December 2002. A DVD of a live performance in Nice was released by Marco Polo (2.220001) and broadcast in 2005 on TF1 and Mezzo. A new production of this opera was presented in May 2006 by Minneapolis Opera.
After Le Fou d’Elsa, a cycle of six songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra to poems by Louis Aragon, Laurent Petitgirard’s more recent works include Le Plus Ardent à Vivre, a septet with harp, given its première by Marielle Nordmann, Poème for large string orchestra (Naxos 8.570138) and Dialogue for viola and orchestra, which he recorded in September 2005 with the Orchestre National de Bordeaux Aquitaine and the viola player Gérard Caussé (Naxos 8.557602). This piece was presented on 2nd October in Paris at the Présences Festival. Laurent Petitgirard gave the première of his symphonic poem, Les Douze Gardiens du Temple (commissioned by Radio-France) with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg at the Présences Festival in February 2006 in Paris. Since 1984 his works have been published by Éditions Durand.
Laurent Petitgirard’s second opera, Guru, has a libretto written in collaboration with Xavier Maurel. His original score for Le Petit Prince, staged by Sonia Petrovna, was performed at the Avignon Opera in May 2010, and he is composing a concerto for cor anglais and orchestra. In February 2009 he conducted Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ at the Toulon Opera and, in April–May 2009, Philippe Hersant’s Le château des Carpathes at the Rennes Opera and in Paris at the Salle Pleyel.
Since 2002 Laurent Petitgirard has recorded for Naxos, which has released three CDs and a DVD of his symphonic works, his first opera, and Maurice Ravel’s complete ballet Daphnis et Chloé (8.570075), with the Orchestre National de Bordeaux Aquitaine. In the 2009–2010 season, he conducted a series of concerts in Budapest, Moscow, Strasbourg, Beijing, Nice, Lancino and elsewhere. For cinema and television, he has written scores for directors including Otto Preminger, Jacques Demy, Francis Girod, Peter Kassovitz, Pierre Schoendoerffer, Claude Danna, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean Larriaga, Patrick Timsit, Laurent Heyneman, Michel Boisrond, Denis Amar, Pierre Granier Deferre, Bernard Queysannes, Alain Tasma, Pierre Joassin, Charles Nemes, Jacques Fansten, Florian Gallenberger, and Edouard Niermans, among others. He received the Young Composer’s Prize of the SACD (Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques) in 1987, the SACEM (Société des Auteurs, Compositeurs et Editeurs de Musique) Prize in 1990, the Grand Prix Lycéen for Composers in 2000 for his Cello Concerto and the Prix Musique 2001 of the SACD for his opera Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. In December 2000 he was elected Member of the French Institute, taking the seat of Marcel Landowski at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
A two-hour, three-act opera for symphony orchestra, choir, six-member vocal ensemble, five soloists, and an actress.
“Do not think that the Island of Guru, a place where ‘chosen’ children are abused, where the faithful are robbed blind, and once weakened and degraded go on to drink a lethal brew, where false prophets and charlatans fall into their traps dragging with them a host of woes—do not think that this island is that far from home.
“Through their brilliant work, Laurent Petitgirard and Xavier Maurel awaken the conscience of those who cherish freedom and hope—so they never embark for the Island of Guru.”
President of Miviludes (Inter-ministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combatting Social Deviance in Cults)
Guru is a charismatic, highly intelligent, seductive, and manipulative character, a depraved mystic of heightened sexuality who has a highly dubious relationship with money and power. He rules over a sect with apocalyptic inclinations comprising fifty followers living in seclusion on an island. The opera depicts the descent into madness and death of the protagonist, who forgets that he himself contrived the rites and rituals and starts to believe that he is truly the “chosen one”. He loses all sense of reality and leads followers and loved ones into a murderous and suicidal vortex.
The language of this world of madness is song. Marie, a woman who recently joined the sect along with a small group of converts, will be the only person to oppose Guru. But as she is the only person who has not gone mad, she speaks and does not sing. The part is played by an actress; her lines are rhythmic, which calls for excellent sight-singing skills.
The other characters are: Iris, the Guru’s companion and mother of their child, who dies for lack of medical care; Marthe, the Guru’s mother; Victor, his assistant; and Carelli, the ever-present scientific advisor.
The opera culminates in a collective suicide that Marie, in spite of her many efforts, is unable to stop. She alone survives.
While the Guru’s megalomania, the seclusion in which the sect lives and the horrific collective suicide all point to Jim Jones and the tragic death of 918 persons in Jonestown, the theories underpinning Guru are more closely related to the “journey after death” beliefs of numerous sects.
Guru is an activist opera, with a clearly identified goal: to speak out against psychological manipulation. Once I had identified and described all of the essential elements of the story, I asked Xavier Maurel to write the libretto. Work on Guru started in June 2006 and was completed in October 2009. The opera was recorded a year later in Budapest.
English translation by Carmen Benito
The members of a sect lead reclusive lives on an island under the influence of Guru, their master, to whom they have entrusted themselves and their possessions as well as the task of guiding their lives. With Guru are Marthe, his mother, Iris, a now abandoned adept with whom he has had a child, and also Victor and Carelli, respectively the ‘financier’ and the ‘scientist’ of the organization.
Guru wields total authority over his disciples, who are scrupulous in their adherence to the rules of life he has prescribed. They are weakened and fanatical, and their only food is derived by Carelli from sea water, a preparation that is supposed to lead them to ‘transparency’, the ultimate stage of sanctity before the ‘great journey’ (death, of course). When the opera begins, new adepts have just arrived on the island. Among them is Marie, who holds herself apart, keeps her eyes open, and, above all, refuses to sing with the others (this is a speaking rôle from start to finish). She openly declares to Guru that she has “come to destroy him”. Guru, self-confident to the point of insanity, willingly sees Marie as a trial that has been sent him, and Marthe and Victor are astonished to notice that he has now come to believe in his own power and in what for them is just a ruse intended to delude simple minds.
It is in this context that Iris’s child, who had been declared sacred by Guru—and who, as such, had been wasting away in the sect’s sanctuary, a veritable living icon receiving scant nourishment—shows signs of being at death’s door. Under Marie’s influence, the troubled adepts seek to oppose Guru’s will and attempt to save the child. When it dies, Guru sends them back, brilliantly using Carelli’s fantastical theories as the basis of an electrifying speech. The event is, however, a catalyst. Guru declares that the ‘great journey’ must wait no longer and fixes it for the following day. He orders everyone to make ready and prepare themselves for what will be nothing less than a huge collective suicide.
Iris, alone and in despair after the death of her child, is the first to commit suicide, thus managing as it were to escape from Guru’s influence. Marthe and Victor, by now appalled at Guru’s delirium, try to resist his plan, not having thought it would ever concern them. Yet the first dies by the hand of Guru himself, while the second is left to be lynched by a barbaric mob of frantic adepts. Everything is ready for the tragic dénouement, and all are about to drink the potion prepared by Carelli, supposed to enable them to meet again in purity in the spheres. Marie still wants to avoid the catastrophe, and Guru’s final challenge is to tell her that if she finds a single adept who refuses to ‘leave’ with the others, he will renounce the ‘journey’ for them all. As he foresaw, she comes up against the stubborn refusal of every adept, and all drink what is quite simply poison. Racked by unbearable pain, the adepts die one after the other as Guru heaps insults on them, commanding them to show themselves worthy of the election of which, by this act, they are the objects.
Guru and Marie now confront each other amid the final death rattles. Before himself drinking the poison, he predicts that Marie also will follow them, the last yet the most precious of the converts. After the death of the mad master, Marie is left alone, prostrate with horror, gazing at the poison…
English translation by Jeremy Drake
Libretto selected by the Beaumarchais Association
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PETITGIRARD, L.: Guru [Opera] (Claessens, Petrovna...