André Grétry composed more than 50 operas in France, mostly of the opéra comique genre, which alternates sung and spoken parts. He was hugely successful during his lifetime, but his works are rarely, if ever, performed today. Active in the years 1760-1813, he abandoned the complex harmonic structures of Lully and Rameau, writing in a more streamlined style, with simple harmonies. Nevertheless, his music foretells many things to come: Mozart, quite clearly, but surprisingly, even Rossini. In Raoul Barbe-bleue, the music expresses different styles: it starts with great simplicity, almost as a pastoral, and then it evolves into more dramatic, intense accents together with the story. The orchestration becomes richer, with brass and timpani, for greater emotional effect.

Matthieu Lécroart (Raoul) © Leikny Havik Skjærseth
Matthieu Lécroart (Raoul)
© Leikny Havik Skjærseth

This production came to life under the auspices of the Trondheim Baroque Festival, held every year in January. It is the result of a collaboration between the festival and the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. The CMBV is an institution dedicated to the promotion of French music of the 17th and 18th centuries, with focus on the rediscovery of rare and forgotten works.

Raoul Barbe-Bleue is based on the fairy tale of Bluebeard, as told by Charles Perrault. The production by Julien Lubek and Cécile Roussat emphasised the comical aspects, setting the story in fairytale Middle Ages. Two minor characters, the peasants Jeanne and Jacques, were performed by two puppets animated by actors, and engaged in several comical exchanges in Norwegian; hilarity ensued among the audience (the only joke I managed to understand, with my limited Swedish, was, in fact, pretty funny). Circus elements and situations were often employed: contortionists, aerial ribbon artists, wild animals, and even a full levitation trick performed on stage, during one of the most beautiful ensembles, with Raoul as the magician, and Isaure (his wife) on the table. The discovery of Bluebeard's dead wives turned into a ghoulish splatter scene with a comical twist: the three ghosts came forward, one holding her own head, another sawn in two, and the third looking like a zombie. In a succesful twist of the plot, Bluebeard at the end is killed by one of the dead wives' ghosts, who sucks his soul out of him with a last kiss. The costumes (also by Roussat) were imaginative, and the lighting (by Lubek) brilliantly enhanced the scene, or, it would have, if the surtitles screen, with maximum brightness and contrast, hadn’t interfered with the nuanced, thoughtful lights.

<i>Raoul Barbe-bleue</i> © Leikny Havik Skjærseth
Raoul Barbe-bleue
© Leikny Havik Skjærseth

The musical production, in the capable hands of Martin Wåhlberg, was extremely good. He approached the score with gusto, thoughtful dynamics, highlighting the solo excerpts. The Orkester Nord is an orchestra of local and international Baroque specialists, who showed a high level of musicianship and sense of ensemble. The violins sounded a little stretched in the more lyrical parts at times, but overall the performance was remarkable.

The cast of singers was the best surprise of the evening. They were all extremely effective in the opéra comique style, alternating elegant, stylish singing with engaging acting and perfect French enunciation. They are all French native speakers, except for Manuel Núñez Carmelino, singing Ofman, Bluebeard’s servant. Instead of trying to hide his accent, he included it in his acting, playing a foreign servant. This clever trick, together with a natural comic talent and a great costume (he looked like a carpet – it’s hard to describe!) made Núñez Carmelino stand out even in his small role.

<i>Raoul Barbe-bleue</i> © Leikny Havik Skjærseth
Raoul Barbe-bleue
© Leikny Havik Skjærseth

The singer who impressed me the most was Matthieu Lécroart, as Raoul. His bass was warm and well set, and he managed to convey Bluebeard’s madness and wickedness while remaining in full control of his voice. His costume and make-up were reminiscent of Nosferatu, turning him into a terrifying vampire. His aria “Perfide, tu l’as ouverte” is one of the most interesting and modern of the whole work, and he delivered it with great commitment. Chantal Santon-Jeffery was a strong Isaure, her soprano full and smooth, giving her character more personality and agency than the libretto did.

Isaure’s lover, Vergi, was François Rougier, whose very high and natural tenor was very suited to the part, and his elegance in closing every single musical phrase was remarkable. Vergi shows up at Bluebeard’s castle disguised as Isaure’s sister; the director had him dressed up as Mary Poppins, bag and umbrella included, and he was speaking French with a hilarious English accent.

Her two brothers were turned into two bumbling fools; Enguerrand de Hys and Jérôme Boutillier clearly had a ball during their slapstick-comedy gigs, and still managed to sing convincingly and with elegance. Eugénie Lefebvre and Marine Lafdal-Franc completed the strong cast with well portrayed minor characters, contributing to a great success.

 

Laura's press trip to Trondheim was funded by Barokkfest Tidlig Musikk

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