The Balcony's marine odyssey

Concerts 21.10.2021

The Balcon team and its captain Maxime Pascal cast off in Au cœur de l'océan, an experimental and immersive opera that links worlds and navigates between the written and the unwritten. After its cancellation at the Lille Opera last January, the work is given its world premiere at the Athénée.

At the head of this underwater adventure, two composers have combined their talents: Frédéric Blondy, also a pianist and director ofOnceim, who is well-versed in the techniques of improvisation, and Arthur Lavandier, the troublemaker of composition (listen to his arrangement of the "Fantastique"!) and an accomplice of Le Balcon, with whom he has already staged three operas. Au cœur de l'océan is a rather unusual collaborative effort, a sort of "stage writing" involving the two musicians and the librettist Halory Goerger from Lille, who also directed the piece: "We made our ways of writing the libretto and the score cohabit, of playing the music and of writing the stage phenomenon", he explains; with the primary idea, that of Frédéric Blondy, of working with six performers-vocalists who are not opera singers and who, more often than not, distance themselves from the text to seek other means of communication within themselves, through the body and the generating voice. They are all soloists, each in their own way developing highly virtuoso voice techniques, 'in sync' and 'in tune' with the ocean and the underwater flora. The staging, which includes video, reflects this plunge into the abyss, moving from a rather realistic set and "surface" lighting to a more dreamlike vision of the depths of the ocean via a vertiginous descent accompanied by a beautiful ballet of jellyfish (Jacques Hoepffner's generative video).   

Let's face it, the story, if there really is one, is difficult to follow, due to the fact that the characters no longer express themselves in words. We learn from the plot that a wealthy oligarch known as Nowitz has financed the first deep-sea submarine company, a crew of six people in search of adventure and wanting to achieve "the best possible conditions with the aquatic environment". And if the meaning often escapes us, just like the very/too loose dramatic thread, the vocal performance of the characters captures the listener and gives off a hallucinating expressive force: the emission comes from the body, which passes through the throat and vibrates in all the resonant cavities of the thorax, face and nose. Between diphonic singing, ornamentation techniques and subliminal sonorities à la Beñat Achary, the lament of the biologist(Audrey Chen) about the distant "voices" of the orchestra, takes us away from "the world above". The further down we go, the stranger the voices - those of Claire Bergerault, Isabelle Duthoit, Phil Minton, Alex Nowitz and Ute Wasserman, all delirious and surreal - become, and they seem to merge with the aquatic fauna and flora: borborygms, "click" language, noisy manifestations, percussive clacking and other laryngeal breath are pushed to the physical limits of the performer: "What the characters find when they arrive at the bottom of the ocean is never named; it is a relationship to the world that satisfies them," explains Halory Goerger in his note of intent, "a way of 'experiencing knowledge through the chasms' that they communicate to us through their respective modes of expression. The voices are amplified but there is no artificial treatment," says Frédéric Blondy. 

Amplified too - this is a constitutive feature of the Balcony's aesthetic - the orchestra is in the pit and the musicians in sailor's clothing, often lending a hand to the crew with constant comings and goings on the stage: a military band at the beginning of the expedition and numerous instrumental solos, the electric guitar over Han Buhrs' crooner voice (who remains on deck), the tuba and accordion sharing the underwater adventure with the characters, or the four percussionists and their chimes initiating a ritual-like ceremony in the last scene; All of these interventions do not require the use of a score because most of the music - except for the fixed part of the electronics - is improvised, generated from verbal or graphic indications given by the composers. With his arms outstretched and his face expressive, Maxime Pascal directs the improvisation, between a discreet and continuous drone and a moving framework with rich moiré that calls upon the extended playing techniques on the instruments. We gradually let ourselves be invaded by the wave of sound that submerges us, the abyssal darkness and the strange phenomena that run through it; and we have to admit that we do not come back from the abyss intact! 

Michèle Tosi


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