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Laurent PETITGIRARD Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man

Elephant Man: Jana Sykorova
Doctor Treves: Nicolas Rivenq
Tom Norman: Robert Breault
Mary: Valerie Condoluci
DVD Naxos/Marco Polo 2.220001

Elephant Man – Nathalie Stutzmann
Doctor Treves – Nicolas Rivenq
Tom Norman – Robert Bréault
Mary – Marie Devellereau

CD NAXOS 8.557608-9 [149 min]

Composer/conductor Laurent Petitgirard (b. 1950) is best known for film and television work (the ‘Maigret’ series and Preminger’s ‘Rosebud’) though, as is the way, I had not registered his name nor recalled his music.

This, Petitgirard's first opera, explores the duality between Merrick’s inner life and his repulsive physical appearance, making him an archetypical 'outsider', such as those treated by Britten, but here an innocent in a cruel, exploitative world. It raises the problem of voyeurism, for we the audience are voyeurs equally as the 19 C people of Merrick's lifetime who paid to see him (that thought also comes to the forefront this Christmastide with the transmission of The Singing Detective on TV, treating the late Dennis Potter's painful and disfiguring psoriatic arthritis so poignantly).

Approached from the musical point of view, I am not your ideal reviewer and you should look elsewhere (e.g. MusicWeb for the CD; Andrew Bartlett loved Petitgirard’s very French sound-world and the musical style of this piece).

I found the music derivative and old fashioned, taking from Ravel, Fauré etc and (? knowingly) the ostinati of Janacek, but reducing them all to an impersonal romantic opera language without individuality. The plot is worthy, but its treatment laborious in its repetitive underlining and fatally slow pace. I gave up quickly on the CD because no text is provided to help sort out the large cast, most of them poorly characterised.

Subtitles are available for the DVD in three languages, but they can only be accessed from the initial menu screen at 'sous-titres'. On the DVD you have a freak show in the first act, London Hospital patients portrayed as freaks in the second; doctors caricatured rather as those in The Singing Detective. The whole thing is grotesquely staged in a "modern" anti-realistic manner which for us helped it not at all, though it was good to be able to watch the singers, some of them the same in both versions - it is essentially a visual show. The slow pace is what sinks it.

Nonetheless, I predict a considerable success for these simultaneous releases by Select in UK; it should appeal most, I'd hazard a guess, to the devotees and collectors of film music, and you should not be over influenced by a single sour review.


© Peter Grahame Woolf