Music Was Resonant, Applause Tremendous. Don’t Ask About Drama.

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Layla Claire, Allyson McHardy, and Damien Pass in ‘La beauté du monde‘ at Opéra de Montréal. (Photos by Vivien Gaumand)

MONTREAL — It was encouraging to see Salle Wilfrid Pelletier — the voluminous mainstage room of the Opéra de Montréal — well packed on Nov. 27 for the last of four performances of La beauté du monde. Yet it was almost disconcerting to hear shouts of bravo from a crowd substantially on its feet.

How might enthusiasts have responded had this three-act commission truly been worth the hullaballoo? Or are high production values, stalwart voices, and good intentions enough these days to ensure a popular success?

Certainly the subject matter of this opera by Michel Marc Bouchard (words) and Julien Bilodeau (music) occupies a moral high ground. The “beauty” of the title refers to artwork spirited out of the Louvre in advance of expected Nazi looting, mostly at the behest of the civil servant overseeing the museum, Jacques Jaujard, who declares in an earnest Act 1 monologue that he wishes “people might be equal before the beauty of the world.”

Fortunately for posterity but unfortunately for the dramatics of the story, the artwork is successfully relocated in Act 1 (the Mona Lisa is unpacked with something of the choral rapture that precedes the entry of Turandot) and declared to be safe in Act 2. So the action methodically shifts to the Jeu de Paume and its conscientious curator Rose Valland, who kept track of the paintings taken from Jewish collectors and transferred knowledge of their whereabouts to the Resistance.

Again, sadly for the purposes of audience engagement, these real historical figures, Jaujard and Valland, are portrayed as essentially identical in motivation and accomplishment. That they were played with theatrical and vocal vitality by the Australian bass-baritone Damien Pass and the Canadian mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy redoubled the inconvenient truth that they have no inner conflicts to resolve and no room, as characters, to develop.

Arguably the most interesting figure on stage is Franz Wolff-Metternich (American baritone John Brancy), the German officer initially in charge of looting operations, who puts on a brave face in front of his troops but is in fact sympathetic to Jaujard’s mission. He disappears in Act 2. Also missing after much ado is a Matisse canvas owned by the son of an art dealer named Rosenberg (Canadian tenor Rocco Rupolo). Its return at the end of the opera might have made an effective element of the denouement. No dice.

One of the problems besetting this two-hour-and-50-minute spectacle (two intermissions included) is the determination of Bouchard to accommodate messy historical reality while somehow giving air time to the various forces, good and evil, that played a role in wartime Paris. Storm troopers and Resistance fighters appear and retreat for no clear reason. In Act 3 we find ourselves in a nightclub where the actress Jeanne Boitel (Canadian soprano Layla Claire) participates in an evacuation that seems pretty much a fait accompli. (Note that Boitel later married Jaujard.)

The most distinctive and self-contained scene recounts the arrival at the Jeu de Paume of Hermann Göring (Canadian tenor Matthew Dalen). The Reichsmarschall appraises various stolen canvases, declaring some to be “degenerate,” while partaking of a vulgar and sumptuous feast. He also takes time, somewhat implausibly, to humiliate Jacob, the disabled son of Jaujard’s assistant Esther (Canadian soprano France Bellemare).

Matthew Dalen as Hermann Göring in ‘La beauté du monde.’

This episode was presumably the reason for an audience advisory that certain elements of the opera would be “difficult to watch.” It was unpleasant and not particularly illuminating. We were quite prepared to believe before arriving at the theater that Hermann Göring was a detestable man.

If the Göring cameo had an upside, it was the opportunity it afforded Bilodeau to write a sardonic waltz. Elsewhere, the composer was reduced to generalized tonal turbulence that could not make amends for the fundamental lack of dramatic impetus. One sensed occasionally a wish to emulate Wagnerian orchestration, along with the absence of a good reason to do so. The Orchestre Métropolitain and conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni did what they could, as did the chorus, even if female voices at the start sounded thin.

The production, as directed by Florent Siaud and designed by his frequent collaborator Romain Fabre, had a professional and realistic look, apart from a giant abstract sculpture that was pulled out from time to time. The performance would have lost nothing, and perhaps gained a little, without this monumental apparatus.

As might be surmised from all the names mentioned above, this was what Ed Sullivan used to call a really big show. For the Opéra de Montréal to have dedicated so much time and money to the enterprise says something about its commitment to new opera. The Canadian Opera Company, in Toronto, by comparison, is on a revival treadmill.

Yet the scale of the ambition in this case is matched by the magnitude of the disappointment. Bouchard is well regarded in Montreal theatrical circles and has a record of operatic success, having adapted his own play to create the 2016 hit (with music by Kevin March) Les Feluettes. The Opéra de Montréal even had extra time, courtesy of the pandemic, to sort out the difficulties surrounding La beauté du monde.

Better luck next time? Well, companies make their own luck. The Opéra de Montréal has a generous cohort of spectators. They now need something truly worth applauding.