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Stream Dalbavie to Conduct Live World Premiere Of His New Opera At Paris Opera

The Satin Slipper is Dalbavie's third and most substantial opera to date.

Stream Dalbavie to Conduct Live World Premiere Of His New Opera At Paris Opera

The success of his first two contributions to the genre, Gesualdo and Charlotte Salomon, established Marc-André Dalbavie as one of the most prominent new voices in contemporary opera.

Now the French composer looks forward to conducting the live world premiere of his third and most substantial opera to date. Almost seven hours long and five years in the making, The Satin Slipper ("Le soulier de satin") was commissioned by the Paris Opera, where it is scheduled to run for five performances for a limited, in-person audience (May 21-June 13). Starring Luca Pisaroni and Eve-Maud Hubeaux under Stanislas Nordey's direction, the production will be available worldwide from June 14, for free streaming on the Paris Opera site.

Based on an epic drama of the same name by French literary giant Paul Claudel, The Satin Slipper depicts the predicament of a Spanish conquistador and a married woman forced to choose between their love and their Catholic faith. Opening just two days after France emerges from its third nationwide lockdown, in what represents the Palais Garnier's first public performances since March 2020, Dalbavie's work is the first major new opera of the post-pandemic world. Click here to see him talk about The Satin Slipper and here to read the illuminating interview he gave about it to Air Mail's Matthew Gurewitsch.

Named an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, one of France's highest cultural honors, Dalbavie first achieved success in the opera house with Zurich Opera's world premiere production of Gesualdo in 2010. This prompted a five-star review in the Financial Times, which marveled: "Gesualdo is a rare thing - a gripping new opera with a great libretto that sounds beautiful. This is a score you could listen to again and again, complex and beguiling." Similarly, four years later, when the composer's second opera, Charlotte Salomon, bowed at the Salzburg Festival, Opera News pronounced it "a compelling and grippingly original musical work."

For his third opera, Dalbavie turned to the greatest masterpiece of poet, playwright and essayist Paul Claudel (1868-1955), a towering figure in 20th-century French literature, whose writings owe their tone and coherence to his religious conversion. An immensely long philosophical play subtitled "The Worst Is Not Always Certain," The Satin Slipper was originally intended to be read rather than performed. Nevertheless, it has inspired a number of landmark productions: an abridged 1943 stage version by the great actor-director Jean-Louis Barrault, a Portuguese film by Manoel de Oliveira that premiered at the 1985 Venice Film Festival, and finally a complete stage production by Antoine Vitez. Performed in 1987 in the courtyard of Avignon's Palais des Papes, with a running time of over ten hours, this production made a profound impression on an entire generation of theatergoers, the composer himself among them. In conversation with Matthew Gurewitsch, he recalls: "The show started in the late evening and lasted all through the night until the morning. I felt as if I'd been to the moon, or to Mars! I was one person going into the theater and another person coming out." As for what first drew him to the play, in an interview with Konstantinos Aspiotis for the Paris Opera, Dalbavie says: "It is an absolutely wonderful story, telling a shared passion between [the protagonists] Prouhèze and Rodrigue. It is the story of a forbidden love. There is something quite peculiar about Claudel's play: this passion is the core theme of the action and yet the lead characters hardly meet throughout the story, which creates a strong dramatic tension. ... The first time I heard it, I thought it sounded much more like an opera than a theater play. There are strong operatic features in the characters, the lavishness, but mainly in Claudel's use of language, his deeply musical and poetic side. I chose to interpret all these aspects as Claudel's desire to create an opera." To adapt Claudel's vast work for the opera stage, Dalbavie worked closely with librettist and dramaturge Dr. Raphaèle Fleury, a leading Claudel scholar whose publications include Paul Claudel et les spectacles populaires (2012).

The composer explains why they decided not to cut The Satin Slipper down to the length of a more conventional opera: "At first, we needed to adapt the text of this play that - depending on the production - is eight or nine hours long. However, in Claudel's mind, this extreme length is not linked to a dramatic tension. It is more like creating an atmosphere, as if we were sharing, or even living inside the play itself. I wanted to keep that feeling." He adds: "Another fascinating aspect of Claudel's work is his use of theatrical styles. He was deeply influenced by the Noh theatre, an art form blending many diverse genres, including comic scenes...We couldn't adapt The Satin Slipper into a one- or two-hour opera. The time is essential to create the unity that blends so many styles: different genres, sometimes even opposite genres together." However, he found that there were advantages to interpreting Claudel's work through the medium of opera. As he says: "Music conveys a lot: some expressions, exchanges or dialogue from the original play can be narrated through music. So, this musical process helped me reorganize Claudel's work and adapt it to a libretto with Raphaèle. Once the libretto was finished, I started to dig in the plot itself." Set during the late Renaissance and ultimately celebrating the Catholic doctrine, The Satin Slipper is the love story of Spanish conquistador Rodrigue and Doña Prouhèze, a married woman. The two are separated for many years while he is on a mission to colonize the Americas, and even when finally reunited, they renounce the chance of sexual fulfilment. Instead, by succumbing to death on her part and enslavement on his, they sacrifice their happiness for God's grace, and the consummation of their union is a spiritual one.

The international nature of their story helped inspire the direction Dalbavie would take in adapting it for the opera stage. He explains: "Prouhèze understands that Rodrigue's love is both passionate and doomed. It is a love that will eventually kill him, and she wants to save him. And by doing so she provokes a journey, setting the plot in four different continents of the world. In a way, we can say that this work is an international one: Rodrigue travels to America, China, Japan and Morocco, where he finally meets Prouhèze again, who has been sent to North Africa. I chose to illustrate these various places with instruments typical of their continents, and thus shifting away from a traditional Western orchestra."

For the Paris Opera's world premiere production of the opera, the leading roles will be created by Venezuelan-born Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, who has headlined productions for companies including New York's Metropolitan Opera, Glyndebourne and the Salzburg Festival, and Swiss-French mezzo-soprano Eve-Maud Hubeaux, who has been hailed as "an artist of choice with tragic talents that work wonders" (Forum Opéra, Belgium). To help realize Dalbavie's vision, librettist and dramaturge Fleury worked with director Stanislas Nordey, set designer Emmanuel Clolus and costume designer Raoul Fernandez, the team behind the Salzburg Festival's hit staging of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande that went on to win the Olivier Award for Best New Production at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In what represents a formidable physical undertaking, Dalbavie - praised for his "impressive command" (Opera News) on the podium in Gesualdo - will lead from the pit.

It is not only the composer-conductor who has faced unusual challenges in mounting the production. The Satin Slipper's extreme length inevitably places special demands on the singers as well, and these have only been exacerbated by the constraints imposed by the pandemic. Throughout the rehearsal process, the full cast and crew have been required to undergo daily COVID-19 tests, while living under the constant threat of cancellation and lockdown. Thus, while the opera offers a celebration of religious belief, its premiere production represents a giant leap of faith - and one that only now, just days before the opening - looks set to be rewarded.


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