Once upon a time...Sounds of winter

Concerts 22.02.2023

The Sons d'hiver festival had the beautiful idea of declining the penultimate evening of its 32nd edition around the idea of narration, of stories set to music. In mirror, the revival of Mabinogion created in 2016, a Welsh melodrama told by Elise Caron and the musicians of the Béla quartet, and the creation of Truth is a four-letter word, an opera of anticipation, imagined four hands by the guitarist-composer Fred Frith and the Franco-Swiss author Julie Gilbert. Around them, a great team of singers and musicians.

On the one hand, legends passed down orally for several centuries and put into writing in the Middle Ages: the tales of the Mabinogion, set to music by Frédéric Aurier of the Quatuor Béla and narrated by Elise Caron, with the science of storytelling that we know. On the other hand, a contemporary text, a form of allegory of the lie in our societies saturated with information and virtual tools, which chooses as incarnations two characters of a Greek myth well engraved in our memories: the myth of Narcissus and Echo.
In our often disenchanted daily life, badly treated by a despairing current events, stories are good, especially if they enchant and make us think at the same time. The evening promises to be very auspicious!

No staging, no decor for the Mabinogion. The performers of this Welsh melodrama have such a strength of conviction that our imagination is fired up and projects for itself, on an inner screen, the images of these forgotten legends. Elise Caron's storytelling voice intertwines with the strings and voices of the quartet. Everything is theater, game, rebounds. One can imagine them on the stage of a street theater in the Middle Ages: the truculence of the text, of the characters, superbly embodied not only by Elise Caron - who gives life to numerous characters: Rhiannon, Gwydion and a few others - but also by the musicians of the quartet, who give voice, punctuate, comment on the narration.
For the Béla are indeed also actors of the tale, and this for our greatest pleasure, because finally this interaction is rare in our Western music.

This life and freshness at work are not the result of chance. They are rooted in the history that the Béla Quartet - and especially the violinist-composer Frédéric Aurier, a long-time accomplice of Jean-François Vrod - weaves with traditional music. Frédéric Aurier knows how to tell stories with his violin! And also to invent an improbable music, a tasty mix of ancient and modern, of tradition and exploration, which leaves room for the words, or rather interacts with the words. Malice is at work. Elise Caron's eyes sparkle when she evokes the funniness of certain scenes. Androgynous voice, sometimes queen or little girl, sometimes king or beggar.
The weaving of the stories is done in the greatest fluidity, because the actors of this Mabinogion are goldsmiths of the tale. And if we sometimes get lost in the characters of these stories, it's for a good reason: it's just because we let ourselves be distracted or charmed by the lively and quivering music of Frederic Aurier, and the irresistible inflections of Elise Caron's voice. A labyrinth of words and sounds, this Mabinogion is an authentic bath of youth!

Another labyrinth is the one woven by guitarist-composer Fred Frith and author Julie Gilbert into an operatic form entitled Truth is a four-letter word. In the background of the libretto, the idea that our world has changed so much, that in the near future nothing will allow to settle down, not even reality.
The characters?
On the one hand, a powerful businessman, Narcis, who makes men and women the tempting proposal to realize their dreams on Mars, thanks to a new application called Me-dream.
On the other side, activists who try to stop Narcis in his crazy enterprise, by infiltrating his network and then his soul. Their ghostly and collective presence is suggested by the video, while they are embodied on stage by the character of Echo. We flirt with the English television series Black Mirror: the screens and the virtual have replaced real life and we sell dreams. How does the human being manage in the middle of this game between reality and dream? What chance of survival does he have on a planet and in an ecosystem more than threatened? 

This is not the first time that Fred Frith has imagined music in which he echoes our anxieties about the disruption of our societies and the ecosystem. In Orange skies, a sort of ecological manifesto imagined for the ensemble Kill your Idols, premiered at the Festival Météo in 2021, the musician took a close interest in the increasingly devastating fires that ravage our planet every year.
This time, Fred Frith pushes the game of resonance with reality a step further, opting for text, words, and a form of pocket opera. He entrusted the writing of the libretto to Julie Gilbert, known for her collaborations with theater, radio and film. 

The undertaking was daring and promising, ambitious too, as it is perilous to deal with both the survival of humanity in a threatened ecosystem and the omnipotence of the virtual in our lives! Omnipresent and full of information, the video by Julien Ribot and Heike Liss serves as a backdrop for the evolution of the two characters, Narcis and Echo, convincingly played by the countertenor Léopold Gilloots-Laforgue and the mezzo-soprano Alexia Macbeth. One may wonder why the important changes in the relationship between Echo and Narcis - the first more and more fascinated and in love, forgetting her mission, the second more and more disdainful and megalomaniac - are not more emphasized by the music and the refined staging of Heike Liss and Dirk Schulz.

The music imagined by Fred Frith accompanies the episodes of the drama. Chiseled and noisy, it leaves surprisingly little room for improvisation, for edges, for bursts. Ikue Mori 's electronics slip subtly into the ensemble playing. The electric guitar-harp duet of Fred Frith and Zeena Parkins appears very quickly as the backbone of the action: it is the punctuation of the five acts. We are under the spell of this well thought-out and lively chamber music, without ever being really surprised, except for a few flights of fancy by saxophonist Lotte Anker, cellist Paula Sanchez... The vocality deployed by the two soloists evolves rather little during the course of the work, while the story is under tension. Perhaps because of this slight lack of relief, one ends up getting lost in the succession of Echo's appearances and Narcis' conquering flights, the bilingualism complicating things a bit.

And yet, what a team! For guitarist-composer Fred Frith not only has the talent for invention that we know, he also has his own way of living each creation with an infectious enthusiasm, and he generally knows how to surround himself. 

He came to Sons d'Hiver with carefully chosen playing partners, the musicians of his International Occasional Ensemble, to which are added the two singers, and an actress in the role of the operator. Between them, the music flows beautifully. One feels a great joy in living and sharing this creation, and that is already a lot!
The opera will be performed again in a few days at Lieu Multiple in Nantes. Fred Frith and Julie Gilbert have already caught a few cocoons of dreamers in their nets, but to take them to Mars is another story...

Anne Montaron

Photos © Margaux Rodrigues


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