Many a new opera is given a premiere production and is never seen again. “Salammbo,” by 48-year-old French composer Philippe Fenelon, is faring better. It premiered at the Bastille Opera two years ago to good notices and was brought back for five performances this May in its original Francesca Zambello production, with new leads and a new conductor. It appears to be having a popular success.
Certainly the Opera National de Paris has spared no expense, lavishing a large cast, orchestra and choruses on it, along with massive sets and a host of often bizarre costumes. A New York airing seems a longshot: “Salammbo” would seem to fall between two stools — probably not the Metropolitan Opera’s cup of tea and too-expensive a production for the New York City Opera. Some other enterprising American company should consider it.
Written specifically for the spacious Bastille and its vast stage, the opera is based on Flaubert’s 1862 novel of ancient Carthage in which Salammbo, the daughter of Hamilcar, the leader of the Carthaginian army, falls in love with Matho, a mercenary who is plotting to overthrow her father.
Somewhat along the lines of “Aida,” both Salammbo and Matho end up dead. There’s more than a little Cecil B. De Mille in the Flaubert novel and the opera , and American director Zambello has not been shy about trotting out good old melodramatic theatrical devices such as great bolts of cloth, white or blood red , unfolding or dropping from the flies, and other well-worn, but not necessarily worn-out, directorial ploys, including a few stabs at surrealism.
Meantime, faced with the plot and the size of the opera house, Fenelon has opted to write a declamatory opera, most of the members of the cast facing the audience head on and singing straight out. His large orchestra, replete with dozens of exotic percussion instruments and a wind machine, doesn’t so much accompany the singing as frame or punctuate it. Indeed, many of the vocals are virtually a capella. The music often soars dramatically and is apparently grateful to the human voice. Notably, Fenelon sometimes uses wordless vocalizations as a part of his orchestration.
Fenelon studied with Messiaen, but his music sounds more like, say, Boulez. “Salammbo” opens with an orchestral prelude, spiky and complete with fanfares and string cri de coeurs, that immediately proclaims itself as modern without being too difficult for audiences who may want to appear adventurous without paying too high a price. The first sound of human voices is a massive cry from a huge male chorus as a crush of soldiers hurtle onto the stage from its rear.
Robert Israel’s set provides several different levels, thereby suggesting both Salammbo’s apartments and the mercenaries’ encampment at the gates of Carthage. With slanting, tilting walls and several moving pieces, the basic black-and-white set also calls on cast members to be athletic as they leap from level to level. Actual fires, with plumes of smoke that are somehow kept from infiltrating the audience, are a part of the encampment scenes.
Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes suggest both ancient Carthage and science fiction, and include long skirts for some of the men, filigreed-metal shoulder pads, fantastic hats, and in the case of the seven ancients, costumes that are like round tables, with a singer in the middle of each propelling himself around the stage with the use of twin staffs. Throughout, Zambello uses her massed forces, particularly her male and female choruses, with skill, sometimes opting for frozen tableaux in battle scenes. Only in the final mass killings scene do matters become a bit of a giggle.
Because of the essentially declamatory nature of the vocal lines, big, strong voices are essential, and the Bastille has them. Nora Gubisch is Salammbo, John Daszak is Matho and Franck Ferrari is Hamilcar, with American conductor George Manahan making his Bastille debut in the pit. All three new leads have vivid voices and stage presence, and Manahan conducts his superbly alert orchestral and vocal forces with total command.
Dramatically, “Salammbo” is more of an oratorio than an opera, so very little sense of personal relationships comes across, which does limit its effectiveness in involving its audience. But on its own terms, it works, and that’s something that can be said of only a very few new operas.