Charlotte Salomon • Marc-André Dalbavie
Dare Such Beauty!
Pictures above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival © Ruth Walz. Click on details to see entire picture.
I had thought, while sitting in Marc-André Dalbavie’s new opera, Charlotte Salomon, that I had found the perfect description for the work. Or the music. Or at least the perfect title. I repeated it, throughout, and let it linger, and it fit only ever better. Can’t forget that. Mustn’t. Won’t. You have guessed it: I’ll be darned if I can recall now what I thought was such an exact fit of my response to Dalbavie’s audaciously beautiful¹ opera on the subject of young Charlotte Salomon, whose autobiography is an exploration of art and private affairs and only gets roped onto the world stage by her capture in the south of France, her deportation and subsequent murder at Birkenau.
Charlotte grows up in a musical family; there are actual shellacs of her step-mother Paula Salomon-Lindberg. And the music Charlotte had heard and describes is woven into a tapestry by Dalbavie that includes Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Mahler, folksongs, ditties, Yiddishe Lieder, Bizet, self-quotation, Horst-Wessel-Lied, and more.
The result is not only a mix of the familiar with the new (which always helps). Nor is it just an excuse for beauty by way of quotation. It is a stepping stone towards a music which, even when utterly new and purely Dalbavie, is as singeable as any I have heard in contemporary opera, where so often stentorian and pressed monotony is the downfall of even the most promising such works. The libretto, put together from Salomon’s own words and partly translated back into French, comes from Barbara Honigman.
Lottie and Lisa go to Birkenau
The character of Charlotte Salomon / Charlotte Kann is split into two roles: an actress (Johanna Wokalek as C.Salomon) and mezzo Marianne Crebassa as Salomon’s fictional self, C.Kann. Director Luc Bondy tells the woman’s story steadily, chronologically, as if through tableaux quite in keeping with Salomon’s own way of telling her dramatized autobiography-cum-play “Theater? or Life?”: gouache paintings with text, about 800 of them. (Salomon, distraught at the suicides of her grandmother and mother and general family-inherited instability, was driven by the question “whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual”, which resulted in this unusual body of work—finished not long before she was rounded up, deported, and gassed.) These pictures that Salomon painted are projected (often plainly, sometimes ingeniously—Lighting: Bertrand Couderc) on the bare white set in which movable walls can create variously sized rooms open to the audience in the Felsenreitschule.
There’s nothing particularly creative about the telling of the narrative, but the singers-actors—and most of all the wildly wonderful Marianne Crebassa—bring life and to the proceedings and the reasonably captivating developments, tribulations, and entanglements of voice teacher (Frédéric Antoun), step-mother (Anaïk Morel), Charlotte, father (Jean-Sébastien Bou), and grandparents (Vincent le Texier, Cornelia Kallisch).
What remains deeply entrenched in the memory is the story, the all-enveloping music, and Crebassa: Girlish, hopping around stage and wrapping herself into any awkward shape as a teenager in love might, with dramatic presence to keep the audience’s interest even in slower-going passages, and with a voice—audible, secure, youthful yet darkly-rich—that was able to do anything, including nearly singing the mobile roof off the Felsenreitschule, in the few moments where she let rip. No singer disappointed, and the Mozarteum Orchestra under the composer’s own direction seemed to be in good shape, making the fearlessly seductive² sound very fine, indeed.