Chekhov in the French Style


Philippe Fenelon studied music in Olivier Messiaen's class at the Paris Conservatoire. He admits that the desire to devote himself to music was strengthened in him when in 1970, at the age of 17, he made his first visit to the Bayreuth Festival. The deciding moment, however, was not a Wagner opera but… Stravinsky’s Svadebka, presented under the auspices of the Festival youth programme, and conducted by Pierre Boulez. "Right at the end", the composer remembers, "to the striking of bells and the notes of four pianosBoulez, in a simple movement of his hand, attracted the public's attention to this sound, drawn out to infinity, to total imperceptibility, plunging one into ecstasy. I was staggered. This was the moment I realized I would be a composer…".

Philippe Fenelon is the winner of many international awards, his music is played at the Salzburg Mozarteum and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, at the Paris Festival d’Automne and the Festival of Neur Musik, in Berlin, at concert-halls in Amsterdam, Tokyo, Madrid, Budapest, Warsaw and Lisbon… In the variety of genres in which the composer’s interests lie  (he has written music for the stage, symphonies, concertos, chamber-instrumental and vocal music), a special place is occupied by opera (Le Chevalier imaginaire, 1984-86; Les Rois, 1988-89; Salammbo, 1992-9; Faust, 2003-04; Judith, 2006-07). And given such an unusually wide-ranging choice of subject-matter - from biblical themes to Cortazar and Kafka - that he should turn to Chekhov is not surprising.

In Alexei Parin's libretto - for all the outer change of emphasis the Chekhov motifs are carefully preserved: nostalgia for what is irretrievable, long gone, life in memories, the wish to “arrest the moment”, in order to remain forever in the sweet torment of bidding farewell to the past. The opera is carefully divided up into acts and scenes, but the entire plot unfolds at a ball - the last ball at the Ranevskys' home. "The cherry orchard is sold! I have bought it!" Lopakhin exclaims at curtain-up. And later on in monologues of farewell, each in their own way, the characters unburden themselves to the house, before leaving it for good.

The composition of the opera is akin to Tchaikovsky's "lyrical scenes". The characters in Eugene Onegin reveal their feelings against a background of peasant choruses, urban romances, provincial dances and capital city polonaises, here a series of soliloquy scenes alternate with choral interludes: sixteen female voices (girls picking cherries - sic!) sing folk songs, choirs - verses by Polonsky, Bunin and Blok; while, throughout the whole of the action, twelve musicians on stage  play - the mazurka, polka, foxtrot, cancan...

It is as if this opera by a French composer, born of a Russian source, was created in order to emphasize how profound and at times indivisible are the links between the two cultures. Here we hear the echo of the "drawn out to infinity" Stravinsky Svadebka chord (Stravinsky's fame was to begin in Paris soon after Chekhov's death). Numerous Tchaikovsky allusions in lyrical culminations and, particularly, in the Grisha cradle song, bring to mind what a strong influence the French school exerted  on Pyotr Ilych himself. And the Charlotta Ivanovna German accent - is a reflection of Monsieur Triquet's "reverances" to the "belle Tatiana". The figure of Lyuba's drowned son - Grishenka - goes back in its innocent vulnerability to Yniold in Pelleas et Melisande but, after all, Debussy never made a secret of the fact that he ‘inherited’ his child characters from Mussorgsky!

Thepeculiarity, even eccentricity, of several timbre treatmentsis linked to the musical-significance of the semantics of the personages, each of which is invested with a genre and also stylistic character. Firs sings mezzo-soprano since, according to the composer, he is one of the main personages in the opera: "the patron-angel of the house - a man without age, whose voice belongs neither to woman nor man". While the role of Charlotta is given… to a buffoon bass (!) - "in order to insist on this personage's comic side, verging on the pathetic and grotesque…".

The fates of all these people, living in the past or possessed by unclear aspirations for the future, cross in the house with the cherry orchard. And even deceiving themselves, they are unable to part from it, venture beyond the labyrinth of their emotions - and they remain there, playing at hide and seek in the Epilogue, where Grisha appears again - a hide and seek "drawn out to infinity". "Have they forgotten me? Together we will while away eternity",these words by Firs bring the opera to an end. The 'local color' of musical and thematic allusions pales at the end before the eternal theme of the great Russian Nostalgia.