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LES CHOCS DU MOIS [Best Records of the Month]


A Bewitching Guru

Laurent Petitgirard understood that a good opera needed a good story.

A contemporary opera chosen as the Record of the Month? This is the first time since the last efforts by John Adams, or since a composer by the name of Laurent Petitgirard in 2000, and the release of the Naxos recording of the outstanding work Joseph Merrick, Elephant Man (first as a CD then as a DVD after the world premiere at the Nice opera house; see our critique in issue number 27 of Classica).
Now, ten years later, the same composer has presented a new opera on a "difficult" subject, and quite a challenge it must have been. Guru offers a description of the realms of folly on an island where a character both megalomaniac and charismatic rules over an "apocalyptic" sect.
Three well designed acts, written with great dramatic efficiency by Xavier Maurel, tell the tale of the would-be prophet, the Guru leading his followers and their children to their death. As the charlatans in the master's entourage degenerate into dissent and conflict, the believers wait for an imaginary journey towards truth. The one woman, Marie, a recent member of the sect, offers resistance and will be the sole survivor.
Turning her back on the prevailing folly, she stands out from the others: she does not sing, but speaks, so the role is for an actress, and here it is the composer's wife, Sonia Petrovna, who is quite remarkable. The recording is the world première of Guru (as yet unstaged), with Petitgirard conducting a fine selection of Hungarian musicians who are soloists with the Orchestra of the Budapest Festival and the Hungarian National Orchestra.
He also has the good fortune to be backed by a cast with great commitment, featuring, in the role of the Guru, Hubert Claessens, the wonderfully expressive bass-baritone with perfect French pronunciation. Guru is an opera both tragic and militant, taking a clear stance against mental manipulation, and is based on the 1978 Jonestown massacre where the terrifying mass suicide saw more than 900 people perish. Another link may be found with the Order of the Solar Temple [Ordre du temple solaire] led by Joseph di Mambro. In the end, such references are of little importance.
The Guru's island symbolizes alienation by the sect in all its tragic folly, and the work of art produced has immense expressive force and unusual intensity. It is an opus displaying great maturity, conveying an ardent message of human values that deeply permeate the work.
The writing and classical narrative structure of Guru did not break with the conventional rules of opera. Petitgirard understood that a good opera needed a good story, complete with characters existing through their musical presence and focusing the attention of the audience, with scenes that work, and – yes – a touch of pathos.
The vocal lines can be deciphered, the text is intelligible, the melodic themes beautiful, the rhythmic writing opulent, and the orchestration varied – all clear evidence of supreme mastery, of the ability to convey genuine emotion to the audience. The style, while traditional, has highly individual harmony (with greater variety than Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man), and becomes increasingly tense, taking us to the edge of the abyss in the Guru's suicidal spiral.
By now Classica readers have realized that they are likely to be overwhelmed on hearing this new opera on a very contemporary subject. So which reader, which artistic director will have the bright idea of staging a production of Guru?
It may be hoped that the director of the Nice opera, Philippe Auguin, who seems determined to produce the work in 2013 with the same cast as the recording and stage direction by Daniel Mesguich, might soon confirm his program.

Bertrand Dermoncourt

• To download an excerpt of GURU (Act III, Scene V) free of charge, go to
• For details, plus excerpts from the score to follow while listening to the music:

CLASSICA CHOC [Record of the Month]
Laurent Petitgirard (born in 1950)
Hubert Claessens (baritone), Philippe Do (tenor), Karen Wierzba (soprano), Philippe Kahn (bass), Marie-Noële Vidal (alto), Sonia Petrovna (narrator), Vocal Ensemble À la Carte, Budapest Studio Choir, Honvéd Male Choir & the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra Budapest, conducted by Laurent Petitgirard.
Naxos 2 CD 866030001 (Abeille). 2010. 2h00

First release
Good, balanced studio recording.

Classica magazine, September 2011, pp. 80-81