Second WomanFrédéric Verrières - The Second Woman

Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris, 2012 | Jean Deroyer, Guillaume Vincent, Jean-Yves Aizic, Jean-Sébastien Bou, Elizabeth Calleo, Jeanne Cherhal, Marie-Ève Munger, Philippe Smith | ARTE Live Web Internet streaming, 22 December 2012

At first, with long patches of spoken dialogue and little musical accompaniment, it’s difficult to establish where The Second Woman lies in the boundaries between theatre, music theatre and opera. Composed by Frédéric Verrières, the work is inspired by the John Cassavetes film ‘Opening Night‘ (1977), the story of an actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands), who goes through a mental breakdown following the accidental death of a fan, drinking heavily and behaving erratically during rehearsals just before the opening night of a play called ‘The Second Woman’. Life and art start mirroring each other for Myrtle to the extent that it becomes difficult to establish where the performance ends and the real person begins.

It’s probably appropriate then that Verrières’ opera proves similarly hard to define or pin down. Rather than being set during the rehearsals for a play, The Second Woman is a behind-the-scenes view of the preparations for the first performance of a new opera which is called - just to blur the lines further in a very post-modern way - The Second Woman. (I wonder what the actual rehearsals for this must have been like - the mind boggles). The opening scenes therefore take place as a rehearsal for a performance, with a répétiteur at the piano and a director struggling with his temperamental (is there any other kind) artists to block out the dramatic action, get the lighting right and deal with the personal conflicts, animosity and artistic differences between the performers. Everything comes together eventually for an actual straight performance of the short opera in Act III, which even then is not entirely without incident and disruption.

There is of course a precedent for this in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, the prelude of which outlines a farcical situation that leads to two entirely different operas, one serious and one a comedy, being put on together at the same time due to time restrictions. There is also some self-reflexive musing on opera and the creative process by Strauss and Hofmannsthal in Capriccio and essentially, the purpose of The Second Woman isn’t that far removed from such considerations. It may all look haphazard, no-one seems to know what they should be doing - least of all the “director” - or at least they all have very different personal views on what they want to bring to the work, but that’s how the collaborative creative process works. It starts from an idea, and if allowed to develop naturally, it can bring in other references and inspirations and acquire personal interpretations that allow it to take unanticipated form and substance.

Since The Second Woman is both an opera and an opera-within-an-opera, it’s difficult to make a distinction then between what is original and what is, so to speak, second-hand - although I’m not sure it’s even meaningful to make a distinction between them. The songs in the rehearsals take place to piano accompaniment, and most of the dialogue in the earlier scenes is unaccompanied, but there is also a more modern use of sampled sounds and ambient drone noises, as well as specific operatic references which include mention of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore and a duet between the “cantatrice” and her coloratura sister (the opera’s woman-in-the-mirror equivalent to the dead fan in ‘Opening Night‘) that is re-worked from the ‘Viens, Mallika‘ duet in Delibes’ Lakmé. Outside of the rehearsals, the actual opera (or “opera”) is made up of a patchwork of different styles and references that takes in folk, pop, Steve Reich-like minimalist passages and even Baroque stylisations.

In between the rehearsals and the actual opera, and through its specific layering of operatic and other musical references, The Second Woman does manage to peel back the layers of its characters, or at least that of the singer, the cantatrice. Born into an artistic family, her father a tenor singing Verdi and Puccini, she and her sister would create their own operas, and her latter-day personal identity crisis seems to come about from being regarded in her childhood as “nothing but a voice”. It’s little wonder then that the crisis that develops in The Second Woman can only be expressed in musical terms.

Director Guillaume Vincent has his work cut out trying to unravel these layers in a way that makes it comprehensible to an audience, as does American soprano Elizabeth Calleo as the singer, but they achieve this remarkably well, slipping fluidly between the musical styles, between English dialogue and French singing (with some Italianate references), between the humour and the drama, the reminiscence and reverie, the rehearsal and the opera, and the actuality of the real performance. The audience at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris certainly found the whole playing up of the artistic temperaments and personal differences very amusing, but there was a wit and intelligence to the music also, directed from the back of the stage - curtain after curtain falling along with the layers of the drama - by Jean Deroyer.

Broadcast live via Internet Streaming, The Second Woman is still available for viewing on the ARTE Live Web site. The work is performed mainly in French and English, but there are no subtitles provided.