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Enigma or the Mystery of Love

Théâtre Maisonneuve, Place des Arts
04/07/2024 -  & April 9, 11, 13, 2024
Patrick Burgan: Enigma
Antoine Bélanger (Abel Znorko), Jean-Michel Richer (Erik Larsen)
Chœur de l’Opéra de Montréal, Claude Webster (Chorus Master), I Musici, Daniel Kawka (Conductor)
Paul-Emile Fourny (Staging), Patrick Méeüs (Sets, Lighting), Dominique Louis (Costumes)

A. Bélanger, J.‑M. Richer (© Vivien Gaumand)

Following the successful world premiere of La Reine-garçon in February, l’Opéra de Montréal has once again struck gold with a captivatingly modern work that will appeal to the broader public. Alternating its programming between tried-and-true warhorses and new works is a wise strategy for a city like Montreal, with its modest opera tradition and tepid government financing. Therefore, accessible modern opera with relevant contemporary themes will generate interest from a younger demographic, essential to forging future forays.

Basing an opera on a successful play is an auspicious premise. Verdi once remarked that a successful play had an excellent chance of becoming a successful opera. No wonder then, that some of his best works were originally plays by Shakespeare, Schiller and Hugo. A superb play such as Eric‑Emmanuel Schmitt’s Variations énigmatiques (1996) therefore demands an excellent libretto and score. Patrick Burgan’s rich score is an accomplished one: accessible, appealing and well-orchestrated. Given the superlative quality of the libretto, we are fortunate to have a score in the service of the libretto, a definite case of “prima le parole e poi la musica” rather than the contrary.

This is not uncommon in French opera, with that country’s cerebral disposition. Gluck (1714‑1787), the great reformer of opera, though Austrian, reached his apotheosis in France. Prior to his reform, opera was a non‑stop parade of singers’ virtuoso excesses. Gluck’s biggest champion and successor was Berlioz (1803‑1869), whose operas were quintessentially balanced fusions of music and text. Subsequent Gallic operas, such as Bizet’s Carmen (1875), Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites (1957) are perfect examples of the superlative fusions of libretto and score.

Enigma, a marvelous treatise on love and its mysterious nature, is a veritable tour de force. It’s a work spanning two and a half hours whose theme is love, though one of the lovers never appears. The evocative publicity posters showing two men in an embrace pierced by Cupid’s arrow seemed to announce a love story between two men, but that is more a case of savvy marketing, and is in a way misleading.

The story finds Nobel laureate Abel Znorko, who, after living a solitary life on a secluded island for years, invites journalist Erik Larsen to interview him. We eventually learn that Larsen hails from a small town, hence a journalistic coup to land an interview with the reclusive writer. Toward the end of the opera, we learn that the invitation was in fact initiated by the journalist, and that the alleged media outlet for which he writes does not exist. Larsen’s main interest is in Znorko’s latest and most successful novel in which he shares his love correspondence with a woman. The journalist coaxes the author to admit that the person to whom the book is dedicated, H.M., is Hélène Metternach, a resident of Larsen’s town. We finally understand why the reclusive Znorko accepted being interviewed by Larsen.

We learn that Znorko had met the young Hélène during a literary conference and the two had fallen madly in love. Znorko decided to stop seeing Hélène and to keep their passion through correspondence. Refraining from actual love because of its eventual subsiding into the banal quotidian is indeed a pretext to avoid a lasting relationship. The sublimation of love into a literary correspondence appeals to the author. Being a talented author’s muse is equally appealing to someone who admires them. After a few years, Znorko breaks the agreement and tries to see Hélène but she refuses. The author’s latest novel, based on their letters, is a provocation through which he hopes to elicit a response from Hélène.

The marvelous dénouement reveals that Hélène is actually Larsen’s wife. For a while we have a back and forth confrontation between Znorko’s sublimated cerebral love and Larsen’s quotidian more mundane love. A further shattering dénouement reveals that Hélène has been dead for several years and that her letters to Znorko were actually written by Larsen. Without disparaging Znorko’s sublimated love, the librettist enchants us with Larsen’s own sublimation of his love for his dead wife by becoming her in the amorous correspondence. The opera ends with a reconciliation between the two men who share a passion for the same woman who is no longer.

Patrick Burgan’s powerful score is evocative and effortlessly conjures various moods. He doesn’t hesitate to quote Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1899) and Tristan und Isolde’s (1865) “Tristan” chord on more than one occasion. Indeed, Wagner’s opera is the greatest paean to love ever written. Enigma shares with Tristan und Isolde the intimate relationship between love and death.

The two protagonists are onstage throughout the opera. Luckily, this is not a bel canto opera with vocal acrobatics and demandingly high notes. Written in parlando style, it nonetheless requires stamina and expressiveness. Tenor Antoine Bélanger, as Znorko, impressed with his presence and clear diction. Unfortunately, the ailing Jean‑Michel Richer offered a diminished voice and his diction was flawed. It’s likely his diction suffered as a result of his reduced means expended while singing. He was nonetheless moving and sympathetic.

Paul-Emile Fourny’s staging succeeded in conveying the intensity of the two protagonists. By setting the room in metallic contours, he reinforced the huis‑clos aspect of the work, culminating in the paroxysm of the two men in the second act. Patrick Méeüs’s spartan sets helped emphasize the austerity of Znorko’s life.

Daniel Kawka masterfully led I Musici, maintaining tension throughout the score. He subtly emphasized the chiaroscuro quality of Burgan’s score. Without resorting to props such as snow, one felt this was indeed a Nordic setting. Such a choice was certainly not fortuitous. Though not stated, both Znorko’s remote island of Rösvannöy and Hélène and Larsen’s quaint town seem distinctly Scandinavian. In a clin d’œil to Bergman, the Nordic setting is appropriate for this intimate story, with its austerity, pensiveness and sweet melancholy.

Enigma is a co-production with l’Opéra-Théâtre de Metz, France, where the work was premiered in 2022; this was its North American premiere. Hopefully, this augurs well for continued collaborations of new works with European opera houses.

Ossama el Naggar



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