The founder, leader and bassist of the former Pink Floyd is no stranger to BIG projects. His albums both for that band and in his later solo career have often been heavy on concept. Now Waters gives us what he calls his opera on the early days of the French Revolution, and it’s definitely worth hearing on several counts. But some may disagree about calling it an opera, and others might feel Waters could be more forthcoming about only the music being his – nearly everything else came from other sources.
About 1988 he was approached by an old friend, Etienne Roda-Gil and his wife Nadine. A lyricist, Etienne had created a 50-page libretto on Ca Ira (which translates roughly as “There is Hope”), and his artist wife had illustrated it with fanciful costumes of an often birdlike nature. They asked if he would do the music for the opera. Excited by the idea of the libretto and the illustrations which seemed to point to later staging of the work, Waters went ahead. He created a synthesized demo version of the work, singing the vocal parts himself. It was presented to the new Bastille Opera in Paris and was going to be premiered by them, but some political hurdles asserted themselves and it failed to happen. The Roda-Gil’s wife died, and other projects occupied both Waters and Etienne.
In 2003 Etienne passed away and now Waters has produced the work as a hi-res surround sound recording on two discs. There is also a bonus DVD video on the creation and production of the work, which shows examples from the illustrations in the original libretto. It should probably be viewed before hearing the complete opera. Waters speaks at length about the creation of the work, and rehearsals are shown. In addition, a 60-page libretto with notes and some of the illustrations accompanies the album. (It is frustratingly afixed to one fold of the fourfold cardboard jewelbox alternative, making it difficult to hold while following the libretto.) The epic story of the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 appealed to Waters because it dealt with some of the same ideas which powered some of his big rock concept albums such as The Wall – struggle of the individual, change, and the need for truth and honesty in all human endeavor. Rather than the terrors and madness of 1793, Ca Ira seeks to portray the spirit and hope of the early stages of the Revolution. The set is basically a circus ring and many of the characters are clowns and other circus people. Terfel’s three roles include the Ringmaster, the so-called Troublemaker, and Louis Capet the King. The circus audience is a also the chorus, as well as being made up of people in all walks of life and position. Chinese soprano Huang plays both Marie Antoinette and the Voice of Liberty, Reason and The Republic. Conductor Rick Wentworth, a composer for film and TV, also handled Waters’ orchestrations.
The various scenes start with a portrayal of the lavish festivities of the royalty while people are starving in Paris. The grievances of the downtrodden are presented, the disarray of France, the massacre of a crowd of women protesters, the fall of the Bastille, the house arrest of the king and queen at the Tuileries Palace, the King’s letter to his cousins in Prussia and Austria asking for help against the revolutionaries, the attempted escape of the royal couple to Alsace Loraine and the increased public outcry against them after their return to Paris, and the work ends with the execution of both the King and Queen.
The use of the children’s chorus occasionally reminded me of Waters use of the same in The Wall. Waters has long been interested in spatial effects in his works, and has employed binaural, Dolby Surround and Qsound on some of his albums. Ca Ira offered him an opportunity to make some very creative use of the five-channel surround capabilities of SACD. It might be said this is the first true surround sound opera. There are frequent ambient sounds of nature – wind, birds, fountains, dogs barking. Fireworks and explosions are used appropriately, such as for the fall of the Bastille. Sometimes the effects are part of the musical score, such as the many clocks ticking in the background for the scene of Louis sequestered in the Tuileries. The connection between the bird-inspired costumes and birds sounds in the opera is obvious, and near the end a bird sound is made to revolve entirely around the listener several times.
– John Sunier