Nearly 80 years after it was revealed to the world, an obscure opera about Napoleon’s son has finally made its North American premiere thanks to the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. Their concert performance of L’Aiglon, featuring a fine cast of singers, is very able. However, a derivative score and inability to sustain the drama without theatrical trappings makes this more a novelty than a satisfying experience.
Based on the 1900 play of the same name, Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert’s 1937 opera presents the final months of Napoleon II (nicknamed L’Aiglon, or the Eaglet), who briefly succeeded his father as Emperor of France before being exiled to Vienna with his Austrian mother. This sub-two-hour opera’s action mostly takes place in 1831 at Schönbrunn Palace, where the young Frenchman dreams of emulating his father’s greatness and becomes the subject of a doomed conspiracy to restore Bonapartism to France.
There was a sense of occasion for this premiere, the subject matter prompting several in attendance to don early-19th century costumes. The men in lavish military garb posted at the Maison Symphonique entrance were presumably hired, but others milling about the lobby took their seats in the auditorium.
What they saw was the OSM occupying much of the stage, while 11 vocal soloists moved on and off before them, performing their roles with hints of theatricality. All were in concert black, except Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet as L’Aiglon (this has always been a “pants role”, ever since L’Aiglon began life as a play starring Sarah Bernhardt). Gillet wore a white suit lightly embellished with military panache.
Singing from scores, the soloists were in fine voice, including Philippe Sly who soldiered on with a cold (much to his credit, this was not apparent). With the exception of Gillet, Marc Barrard (as the conspiracist Flambeau) and Étienne Dupuis (as Austrian Chancellor Metternich), none had a role substantial enough to make much impact. Contributions by the OSM Choir and Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal were not only fleeting, but delivered from the wings.
Local boy Dupuis, who was last seen at home in the title role of Opéra de Montréal’s Barber of Seville last November, impressed once again with his confident baritone. Even without the dramatic support of a full theatrical production, he embodied the scheming Metternich with dark tones and precise diction. Frenchman Barrard, who played Flambeau in the Opéra de Lausanne’s 2013 L’Aiglon, also impressed, his mellow baritone and understated acting ably conveying the character’s pride and world-weariness. Though almost constantly on stage, and singing for much of that time, Gillet never flagged in the title role. Her bright soprano soared like a bird when required, and she consistently displayed beautiful phrasing.
Under the baton of Kent Nagano, the OSM performed with precision and verve; the strings and brass were particularly lush. Unfortunately, the score, occasionally reminiscent of soundtracks from Hollywood’s golden years, is often derivative, evoking French Revolutionary songs (most obviously La Marseillaise), military bombast and waltzes – including Act III’s seemingly interminable instrumental prelude.
This long waltz may work in a fully staged opera, with dancers sweeping about to set up the ballroom scene. For this concert performance, however, the silhouetted dancers projected onto the large screen behind the orchestra meant this waltz was like André Rieu without the spectacle. The various, simple projections throughout the performance, including photos of Schönbrunn Palace and objects that belonged to L’Aiglon or his father, were designed to clarify plot elements in the absence of props, sets and fully realized acting. They did little to sustain the drama, however, which flagged at times.
Even bearing in mind the projections were not intended to be distracting, they were terribly dreary. The rudimentary video effects employed, such as loops, negative exposure and panning across still photos, were a sad blow to that sense of occasion, as the artists on stage gave their all to justify it.
L’Aiglon continues March 19 and 21. More information at www.osm.ca.
Patricia Maunder is a Montreal-based writer and editor