Review: Another Brick in the Wall, l’Opéra de Montréal
Viewed: March 13, 2017
At first glance, an adaptation of Pink Floyd’s 1979 concept album The Wall seems an odd choice for part of Montreal’s 375th Anniversary. However, a brief reflection on the genesis of the album brings this choice into better focus. According to rock legend, the story for The Wall came to Pink Floyd bassist and songwriter Roger Waters after a performance in Montreal: after allegedly spitting on a fan at show at the Olympic Stadium in July 1977, Waters turned inward and began to reflect on the excesses of rock and roll stardom that lead to that moment. Julien Bilodeau’s operatic adaptation begins with a dramatization of this incident. Indeed, Another Brick in the Wall, is a thoroughly Quebecois affair. The composer, singers, conductor, and stage director are all from Quebec, making the production a great opportunity to put Montreal’s artistic diversity and richness on display: the Opéra de Montréal poetically transforms Waters spitting on one of our own into a new and thoroughly montréalais work.
Knowing the original story of Pink Floyd’s The Wall is an asset going into the opera, and having seen the film is even better, because the story often tends towards abstraction—something that opera inevitably enhances. However, viewers who only know the “greatest hits” version of the album would be sorely disappointed: Bilodeau’s musical adaptation is truly transformative, largely eschewing any big sing-a-long tunes. He specifically avoids the music of the titular “Another Brick in the Wall,” and its famous “we don’t need no education” leitmotiv, which weaves through the album as vocal melody and guitar riff. Album listeners are however rewarded for their patience: some of the more obscure tracks are presented nearly verbatim, and translated surprisingly well to this new operatic context.
Right from the first spit, and the invitation to “go to the show,” Étienne Dupuis assures the audience that he’s up to the difficult task of playing both the opera and the rock star. As an actor, he embodies just the right balance of rock swagger and personal vulnerability—his Pink is at the top, to be sure, but he’s also teetering on the edge. In addition to his impressive operatic baritone, Dupuis delights with a flexible flip over into a pure rock falsetto, as the role requires. Subsequent productions are going to be hard-pressed to match his versatility as both an actor and singer.
Throughout the first act, following the original track listing from the album is the only thread to guide us through Bilodeau’s maze. At times, the post-tonal language of the act seems overwrought—perhaps an attempt to concretely legitimize the rock subject matter through modernist musical language. As a result, any of Pink Floyd’s music sticks out— more pastiche than homage. For example, in the groupie-fuelled hedonism of “Young Lust,” the orchestra’s imitation of the bass groove on the album falls short and sounds square: this is the moment where Another Brick in the Wall sounds the most like opera-doing-rock. Essentially, Bilodeau loses the momentum of the first LP of The Wall, which courses through the exuberant “In the Flesh?” to the memorable classroom scene of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” waxing introspective for a few songs, and finally hitting fever pitch with the destruction of a hotel room in “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 3).” Although the production captures the withdrawn atmosphere of “Mother” and the World War II retrospective “Goodbye Blue Sky,” the first act flounders, and finds itself largely without momentum. Here, Bilodeau truly missed the opportunity for a golden operatic duet, dramatizing Pink’s borderline-abusive relationship with his mother. France Bellemare as The Mother, however, shines in this segment: at first I was surprised to hear her so low in her range, but it soon became obvious that her rich lyric soprano would be required for the rest of the role. When all else verged on the unintelligible, Bellemare’s voice remained a silvery beacon, reminding opera-goers that even when plots are obscure, at least we can count on beautiful singing.
It is the ending of the first act that inspired some confidence for what was to come: Bilodeau makes the smart move to end the act with the end of the first LP, at “Goodbye, Cruel World.” In this song, Pink drawls out lyrics that read like a suicide note—and after the destruction of the hotel room, we just might believe he’ll do it. As Waters sings the final unaccompanied “Goodbye,” the floating organ of the track cuts out, as does the reverb on his vocals—this is marked as an abrupt end. The operatic adaptation was chilling: sustained strings to imitate the organ, and as Étienne Dupuis half-spoke “Goodbye,” the lighting cut to black, sending a frisson through the hall.
The second act redeemed the first; its success hinged on a more thorough synthesis of Bilodeau’s contemporary operatic language and the original themes. When Pink asks “Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn / Remember how she said that we would meet again?” the opera launches into a smoky dance hall version of the English wartime song “We’ll Meet Again.” “Vera” herself is portrayed by mezzo-soprano Stéphanie Pothier, who seemed miscast. Although Pothier’s vocal performance was strong (despite some diction problems), casting a jazz singer in the role would have been more appropriate, lending a greater stylistic and historical authenticity to the scene. The following number, “Bring the Boys Back Home,” offered a truly operatic, even Verdian chorus: men and women in 1940s civilian and military costume, dwarfed by the words of Dwight Eisenhower, inscribed on the Wall. This adaptation mustn’t have been hard: the album version is already operatic, with full orchestra, chorus, and gratuitous cymbal crashes.
Turning away from nostalgia and towards the present, “In the Flesh” and “Run Like Hell” are part of a fascist fantasy sequence in which Pink is a rock n’ roll dictator. Just as the Pink Floyd’s The Wall was laden with references to the Berlin Wall and the Cold War, Another Brick made its own political allusions, this time to Trump’s border-wall and xenophobia. The scene displays torture and incarceration of prisoners, a disproportionate number of whom are people of colour, meanwhile, Pink spouts racial slurs and megalomaniacal nonsense. Another Brick acquires a political edge without being too heavy-handed, showing the dangers of entertainment-world egos passing into the political sphere.
“The Trial” sequence is delightfully surreal: Pink is on trial by the cast of characters introduced throughout the rest of the opera, including his wife, teacher, and mother. All are outfitted in gaudy, shiny crow costumes, laying to rest any lingering suspicions that these events are happening anywhere but in Pink’s drug-addled mind. As a young listener, I recall grappling with the urge to skip over this track because it was just too odd. But, interpreted as a climactic scene in an opera, “The Trial” finally made sense for me—perhaps more so than on the album. And it is in this way, in “The Trial” and the choral finale, “Outside the Wall,” that Bilodeau truly shines. It turns out that the secret to an operatic adaptation of rock isn’t so much forcing rock into a new generic context, but drawing out what was operatic in the first place. The Wall was already a rock opera, complete with leitmotivs, stirring choruses, and intergenerational drama: Another Brick is at its best when it lets The Wall be what it already was.
Three presentations of Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera remain: March 24 (7:30 PM), 26 (2 PM), and 27 (7:30 PM), Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts, Montreal. www.operademontreal.com