Opéra Comique 2023 Review: L’Inondation

Beautifully staged and vocally superb, the opera answers—on its own terms—why the art form matters.

By João Marcos Copertino

An opera composer, regardless of their era, always has to address the question, “Why opera?” The answer must come from the opera itself. 

Francesco Filidei and Joël Pommerat’s “L’Inondation” tell us their “whys.” Opera, though deemed an anachronic format, brings back this lyrical rhetoric tradition to recover an overpowering form of sensibility.

“L’Inondation,” was based on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novella “Navodneniye (The Flood),” which tells the story of how tenants living in a three-story apartment building changed following the death of one of their neighbors. When the deceased neighbor’s teenage daughter moves into the first floor of a childless couple’s apartment, a series of interpersonal tensions are uncovered.

The opera showcases some of the possibilities and impossibilities of opera through a complex game between operatic tradition and rupture. It is in the tradition of Britten and Barber’s operas. Although conciliatory towards an audience that has been estranged by most of the contemporary repertoire, “L’Inondation” has its own subversions. 

Cinematic Storytelling

If anything, Filidei might be engaging in a “rhetorical turn” of contemporary opera. These titles seek audience conciliation through more cinematic forms of storytelling while preserving the tradition of acoustic music and subjugating the genre with subtle but effective structural innovations.

The argument is full of suspense and tension. While psychological terror and drama are not uncommon in modern operas, especially after the 1920s and 1930s, “L’Inondation” partakes of mediated forms of narrative such as prose and cinema. 

Unlike most operas, “L’Inondation’s” action revolves around a crime represented in the first scene: the protagonist, the Woman, has strangled a teenage girl. The crime is continuously revisited throughout the performance and serves as the gravitational point as the music guides the audience on its journey.

An Opera with Narration

Another unorthodox solution is the opera’s Narrator, who is double-cast as the Police Officer. Theater or opera can have narration or narrators, for example, in Act one of “Tristan und Isolde,” and Bach’s Evangelist.

In “L’Inondation,” however, the narrator is both knowledgeable and unknowledgeable. Since he is the Police Officer, one assumes his narration happens after the whole investigation is over. Yet, when on stage as a Police Investigator, the Narrator seems very incompetent since he discovers the existence of the murder only after the criminal confesses to it.

This incompetence of the Narrator speaks much about what opera can and cannot provide. One of the blessings of theater is that action happens, unmediated, in front of our eyes. Opera can have a moment of narration, but the stage is too big, and we can move our attention elsewhere.

Set and lighting designer Eric Soyer’s amazing scenario enhances this sense of dispersion so common in opera; his scenario requires us to simultaneously see at least three floors of an apartment building. The dispersal of our attention is a counterforce against the mediation through narration.

A Contemporary Opera with a Hummable Tune

Often heard, even from the most devoted music lovers, is that contemporary opera doesn’t have takeaway numbers.  Although a bit simplistic, this can be a fair criticism. The issue is how a composer manages this expectation for a melody that one can remember.

Filidei surprisingly gives us a tune that anyone can sing long after the opera is over. The problem for the recollecting, humming listener is that the melody is associated with murder. Dicey music gimmicks are everywhere in “L’Inondation.” It is the opera’s way of preserving the operatic form while questioning it.

It is interesting that the opera’s most overt reference is Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélissande,” which has a similar kind of subversion.

In “Pelléas,” the text leads the audience away from melodic memorization. “L’Inondation” also privileges a deep connection between the singing voice and the utterance of the word, though it does not fear melodic repetition once in a while.

Filidei, therefore, does not necessarily undo opera. If anything, he shows reverence to a certain way of opera-making that questions the form by exhausting its possibilities.

Filidei wants his audience to be aware that he knows the operatic repertoire and its common places better than anyone else in the room. It is just a matter of rescuing the meaning of what could be seen as a relic from a past era.

Opera, Subverted

A good example is the Woman’s confession. Quite likely the most emblematic moment of the opera, the monologue is a cathartic aria that holds the audience’s hand, guiding them along the wonderful road of all the mad scenes in operas, from Lucia’s bloody dress to Judith in “Bluebeard’s Castle,” demanding the keys to open the last door. The difference here is that unlike eleven out of ten opera heroines, the Woman survives, and her mad scene actually makes her sane and healthy, even though she might be arrested.

Even the coloratura is subverted. Filidei employs it austerely only when the characters are narrating actions of violence, whether it be the pathetic entrapment of a fly by the teenage girl or the murder-confession aria.

While still a very satisfying resource, it is interesting to see how it is used to connotate something other than vocal virtuosity. It is also interesting how the operatic language is used to stress both comprehensibility and incomprehensibility.

On the one hand, the text is always very intelligible. This reviewer is not a native French speaker but could understand all of the text without major problems and only looked at the supertitles once. On the other hand, the operatic language allows us to listen to dialogues that never happen.

Filidei juxtaposes two singing lines showing how the most mundane dialogues are impossible. None of them are listening to each other. Filidei’s music happens because the characters do not listen to each other.

The controlled use of the orchestra also gives comprehensibility to the text and the music. Unlike the singing lines, the orchestral sound is mostly disruptive and focuses on the percussion sounds, which vertically crop the melodic vocal lines. However, the orchestra never covered the singers.

Enjoyable or Not?

Is “L’Inondation” enjoyable? It is. In terms of contemporary opera, Filidei has created an opera that is quite palatable and does not seek to promote a divorce between opera-goers and contemporary music. Maybe that is why it is on its second run at Opéra-Comique.

The public seemed to like it, and though not everyone applauded, most people did. (The house was full.) It is undeniable, however, that the ending provoked a certain awkwardness. It was as if the audience did not know what had hit them. This is one of the powers of Opera with a capital “O.”

A few things, however, will take time to age. Operatic music, when good, ages better than wine, so it is hard to judge—when everything is still so green—how perennial “L’Inondation” will be. The opera, which is beautifully staged, has hidden irony in it yet to be uncovered.

Filidei seems to have embraced the role of an “opera composer” with “L’Inondation.” It will be great to see where his musical ideas take him in the future. It’s wonderful that “L’Inondation”—in this same staging—is available online but with a slightly different cast. 

Individual Performances

Regarding the performances, the night was more than satisfying. The cast was singing new music, so there were no preconceptions about how things are supposed to sound. The important thing from the start was that all the singers used correct French pronunciations, and they embraced the musicality of their vocal lines extremely well.

Opéra-Comique’s acoustics might be the most generous of all Paris for singers, and none of them missed their chance to use them. Most of the singers have experience in chamber music. French chanson was very evident all night. “L’Inondation” profits from this intimist mode, with maybe just one or two grandiloquent moments.

Chloé Briot captains the cast as the Woman (Sofia). Briot sounds much better in live performance than in the recorded version available from France Musique. She has evolved quite well vocally in the lower parts of her voice.

Her acting is fairly compelling, especially in the moments when a certain numbness is required. It seems that Briot shines particularly well the closer she sings to the spoken text. Her most cathartic moment is well-delivered and quite remarkable. Perhaps, it could have been even more strident and, therefore, more cathartic.

Jean-Christophe Lanièce avoids any simplistic vilification of his character, the Man, as an abuser. He gives us a certain tenderness, even in the most patronizing moments. His acting depicts the Man as innocent of the decisions that he makes when driven by his desire. His tone brings delicateness and strength to a character that could easily be disregarded as a mere “bad guy.”

The Young Girl is depicted by both the singer Norma Nahoun and the actress Pauline Huriet. The latter does not sing, but she dubbed all lines perfectly, which enhanced the sense of doppelgänger craziness intended by Pommerat.

Vocally, Nahoun has a lyric tone with good medium and lower harmonics. Her Young Girl is not naïve or an ingenue; quite the contrary. When the character sings, Nahoun shows a certain strength and willfulness that actually enables the audience to understand how disturbing her character’s presence would be in anyone’s house.

The couple, who are the upstairs neighbors, was performed by Enguerrand de Hys and Victorie Bunel. Their presence gives us a counterpoint to their childless downstairs neighbors. Bunel and De Hys attempt to depict a couple that wants to look idyllical and perfect.

Probably the most classically beautiful passage in the opera is sung by Bunel, celebrating the wintertime; her performance blended her mezzo-soprano voice well with the harp sounds. De Hys is a very expressive tenor with a particularly nasal resonance. In the French language, nasality is often welcomed, and he uses that well to preserve a sense of legato and phrasing.

Guilhem Terrail singing of the character of the Narrator and Police Officer was the weakest link in a strong chain. Instabilities in the delivery of his sound prevented a full understanding of where he intended to go with his musical phrases.

Nevertheless, Terrrail showed an instrument capable of a vocal color quite distinct from most countertenors. His tone is significantly lower and richer in darker sounds than most countertenors nowadays. Tomislac Lavoie, as the Doctor, sang the lines well, even though it is a small role.

Filidei’s Orchestration Challenges

The Chamber Orchestra of Luxembourg sounded quite good playing a score that gave the band a very particular role. While the singers’ parts are more or less within the realm of what a normal opera-goer expects from a singer, the orchestra continuously challenges listeners by making them feel uncomfortable with the sounds.

Conducting the orchestra, Leonhard Garms achieved a good balance, letting all the daring musical movements be heard from the pit and understood without ever undermining the singer’s understandability. His orchestra sounded razor sharp as if any of its percussive sounds could literally cut your hand. Even the most familiar sounds, such as a piano playing a scale, sound off-beat and off-tune. 

“L’Inondation,” as an opera and production, is certainly one of the most interesting contemporary operas this reviewer has seen. Beautifully staged and vocally superb, the opera does answer—on its own terms—why opera matters, and especially why it matters today.

Filidei and Pommerat’s work does not fall into the trap of pedantic representation or self-celebratory music. But will Filidei’s music last? That is a question that only time will answer, but we should hope so and look forward to hearing more operas composed by him.



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