Where has Roger Waters been for the last 15 years, then, since his solo album "Amused to Death", and while his former Pink Floyd bandmates have been similarly studio-shy? Rumours that he had been painstakingly writing and planning an opera based on the French Revolution seemed absurdly ambitious. But they turned out to be true. In the end "Ça Ira" is indeed an opera. It's performed with the traditional classical forces of orchestra and chorus, with no guitars in sight. But only just an opera. With its poverty-'n'-revolution theme and French setting, there's sometimes more of a feeling that you're listening to "Les Miserables" than Verdi. Its musical language is resolutely unambitious. With its heavy philosophising, and grandiose scale, it's still recognisable as a Roger Waters concept work, albeit a collaborative one.
It's sustained by its ambitious libretto, written by Etienne and Nadine Roda-Gil. Originally in French, it ended up in English after the record company's persuasion. But it doesn't sound like a translation, dodgy "vermin / ermine" rhyme aside. Specific events of the French Revolution are interspersed with observations about social revolution in general. While it's pompous, and some of its metaphors (such as birds / freedom) are overwrought, it naturally forms the next chapter in Roger's lifelong obsession with war. The most important point is made in the opera's conclusion. In debating whether to abolish the guillotine, the protagonists consider whether brutality can ever serve a greater good. That is, is there any such thing as a just war. In taking a more large-scale world view, it contrasts with "The Final Cut", where Waters explored the tragedy and futility of war from a human perspective. But amidst the straight narration of history and abstract philosophising, that human touch is missed.
The show is presented as a "circus"-style performance within a performance, with the occasional background audience cheer, though the subtleties of this performance style don't come across in a recording. The circus performers are a world-class but over-stretched trio of solo singers. Bryn Terfel (he must be a Floyd fan) is a predictably strong lead, but is burdened with the story's three biggest roles - the "Ringmaster" narration, the revolutionary leader and King Louis XVI! Clear-toned soprano Ying Huang plays Marie Antoinette well, whose character is the only one to undergo any sort of development through the opera, and Paul Groves is a robust tenor. A big chorus give muscle to the moments of high drama, and a rabble of working-claaarse urchins fresh from "Oliver" transport us back to musical-land. Waters' long-standing disdain for Andrew Lloyd Webber now seems ironic, though I suspect he's mellowed in his old age.
Musically? Well there's plenty of soft and loud, big and small, but there's precious little actual musical variety. The largely predictable tunes go up and down within a very small range. Much like Roger's finest works, "The Wall" and "The Final Cut", it's the words and sense of theatre which dominate "Ça Ira". Waters himself always had a limited skill for writing a good tune, and there's no change here. A few recurring phrases give the music a backbone, but they're repeated in an unimaginative way. Orchestrator Rick Wentworth ensures that the sound does all the right things for an opera. Big chorus swells, cymbal crashes, colourful crowd choruses, shifts in mood to go with twists in the story, all happen in the right places. Some great moments of drama include the ominous and lush harmonies of the overture. The king's letter to his Spanish cousin Bourbon is a true operatic aria with a fine melody, but its edge is blunted for listeners who realise the tune is recycled from one of Waters' previous solo albums ("Every Stranger's Eyes" from "The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking"). There's a few other gestures to inject some colour, such as the Caribbean-flavoured "Silver Sugar and Indigo", which relates contemporary trade and slavery politics in the French colonies, and the Pope's plainchant tune declaring human rights as a sin. They're well-intentioned, but just not interesting enough to give the music any serious quality. Even the most pivotal events, the fall of the Bastille and the drop of the guillotine onto King Louis' neck, are rendered with disappointingly low-key music.
There's nothing wrong with musical hybrids, but there's a danger that this one will have little to offer to anyone. Too musically crude for opera buffs, not enough tunes for musical-goers, and too stuffy for those longing for a new Waters concept rock epic. It seems destined to be lost in a light classical niche. Devotees of Waters' big political and philosophical ideas should be happy, although they're getting more of a Roda-Gil than a Waters work. Which member of Pink Floyd was it who claimed the lyricist should have a higher billing?
July 11, 2006