Michael Jarrell: Cassandre

Astrid Bas; Susanna Mälkki; Ensemble intercontemporain; Ircam (Kairos 0012912KAI)

18 August 2009 3 stars

CassandreOne of the new works to be programmed at the Proms this year was Michael Jarrell's Sillages, which was performed in Prom 25 to a warm reception. Following this, a new release on Kairos presents a major vocal work by the Swiss composer, Cassandre, dating from 1994.

The disc is the latest in Kairos's Sirènes series, which has the label working in collaboration with Ircam and Ensemble intercontemporain to showcase works integrating electronics and live performance. Previous releases have been of works by Phillipe Manoury and Luca Francesconi, and have surfed along the edge of what is currently technologically possible, as facilitated by composers interested in exploring that boundary in their works.

That is no less the case with this disc, although in apparent contrast to the material from which the work's theme is drawn. Cassandre, a spoken opera for ensemble and actress, is a monodrama narrated by the eponymous figure from Greek mythology. As Philippe Albèra remarks in his sleeve notes, the work 'mysteriously weaves together strands of the new and the old.' It draws on a tale dating back to the beginning of western civilization: the Trojan War. 

Cassandra, as told by Homer, was one of the daughters of King Priam, ruler of Troy during the era of its destruction at the hands of the Greeks. From Apollo she received the gift of precognition, the ability to see into the future; but when she jilted the god, he put a curse on her so that none who heard her speak would believe her prophecies, in this way leaving her helpless see the doom she had foretold for Troy played out before her eyes, as she is treated with derision by her fellow countrymen.

The version of the myth used here is East German writer Christa Wolf's re-writing of the story from the early eighties. Wolf, a controversial feminist writer, lived under the harsh reality of the cold war, writing against the weight of a repressive state and Stasi surveillance. In her work she reinterprets the myth from a feminist viewpoint and in a manner questioning the basic motives behind the war, and any war. The text presents a history of the Trojan War as told from the Trojan perspective. We follow Cassandra's reminiscences in her final hours – in her current state being taken as prisoner through Greece among the Greek crowds – from her rape at the hands of Greek soldiers, to her early memories of her parents and siblings, to the evening when Paris decided to spirit away Helen and unwittingly instigate Troy's doom, and from the death of her brother Troilus at the hands of Achilles to Achilles' own eventual demise. The futility and vested interests of war are to the fore throughout.

Formally the work resembles Erwartung in being an opera breaking with operatic convention to present a female character as sole protagonist, delivering to the audience her thoughts and memories in extended monologue. But in contrast to that work, the libretto here is spoken rather than sung. Actress Astrid Bas delivers the sifting lines with command and vivacity, the young Cassandra stolid and fiery in her total isolation, an exile from her country and her countrymen, both from within and abroad.

One concern upon initially listening to the work is as to its generic status: should it really be described as an opera, or would it more properly be seen as a theatre piece – albeit one with very sophisticated musical accompaniment? The text being spoken, the onus falls on the speaker's dramatic skills rather than any of the verbal qualities required of a singer. Jarrell responds to this by saying: 'The text follows the music and not the other way round' – although this does not quite come across as being the case.

The music drifts in a stasis. The instrumental colours are dark – low horns and resonant gongs, murmuring washes in the electronics from time to time, pedalled notes in the strings, a quiet dynamic generally predominating. The approach is synthetic, no one instrument standing out from the cauldron of the ensemble for very long. Bas's oaken voice is the centre around which the mix is stirred in its ebb and flow. The use of electronics is judicious, achieving a brilliant complement to the acoustic sounds, seamless rather than extravagant in its appearance.

Cassandra's memories bring us along the chronology of events, all couched in the dread of the mind that is seeing them. The tone recalls somewhat Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer – pride in the person the speaker has been: a young seer, an outcast, one at the outskirts of their age, an age which is now ending. A big problem for non-francophone listeners is that the narrative – the dominant factor of the composition (at least in this recorded format) – is in French. Against this, the liner notes include a complete libretto of the work, in the original French as well as in an English translation (there is also a German version); which will be necessary for many listeners to understand what is going on.

By Liam Cagney