Lucas Meachem and Sasha Cooke in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. (credit: Kyle Flubacker)

World premiere of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” unfolds a powerful tale of fate

PERFORMANCE REVIEW:
The Dallas Opera
November 3, 5, 8 & 12, 2023
Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House
Dallas, Texas – USA
Joby TALBOT: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (world premiere)
Emmanuel Villaume, conductor; Leonard Foglia, director. Joby Talbot, composer; Gene Scheer, librettist. Cast: Lucas Meachem (Jean-Dominique Bauby), Richard Croft (Abbé Faria), Sasha Cooke (Sylvie), Deanna Breiwick (Claude), Kevin Burdette (Papinou), Andriana Chuchman (Sandrine/Mercédès), Andrew Bidlack (Doctor), Jocelyn Hansen (Lea), Ava Jafari (Céleste), Austin Howarth (Théo), Martin Luther Clark (Orderly). Creative: Elaine J. McCarthy, set and production designer; David Woolard, costrume designer; Russell H. Champa, lighting designer; David Zimmerman, wig and make-up designer.

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs | 6 NOV 2023

On Friday evening in the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, The Dallas Opera presented the world premiere of its most recent commissioned opera, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. This impressive and immersive work of musical theater was created by the team of composer Joby Talbot, librettist Gene Scheer, and director Leonard Foglia. This is the same creative team that produced the spectacular opera, Everest, in 2015.

Scheer’s relationship with TDO, albeit with different composers, goes back to Thérèse Raquin (2001) with composer Tobias Picker. In 2010, working with composer Jake Heggie, Scheer worked a miracle by condensing Herman Melville’s 1851 sprawling novel, Moby-Dick, into a taut and engaging opera.

So, what is this new opera, which premiered in Dallas on Friday evening all about? And what does a diving bell have to do with a butterfly? In a word, it is about fate and how to cope with it when it crushes you.


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Like Everest, this opera is based on real events and characters, most of whom are still alive. It concerns the story of journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who, among other stellar credits, was the chief editor of the French fashion magazine Elle.

One moment, he was handsome, rich, successful, admired, envied, and famous Bon Vivant. But in seconds, a massive stroke incarcerated his brilliant mind inside his useless body. His only method of communication was his ability to blink his left eye. One blink for “yes” and two for “no”.

He communicated by hearing a recited alphabet until one blink selected a letter and so on until a word was produced. What was also produced by this tedious method was the highly praised and eloquent novella on which this opera is based. His frozen body became the Diving Bell of the title, and his mind became the free-flying butterfly. Unstuck from time and place, his thoughts wander through old realities, those newly imagined, quirky observations, and fantastical visions.


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Talbot’s score reflects this same freedom. Using a cinematic musical style, Talbot’s singers and large orchestra wander through contemporary musical styles and techniques, from minimalism to jazz, from lush harmonies to vacant tonal landscapes. Many of these techniques are overlaid and appear concurrently. Don’t expect any tunes to hum on the way out of the theater, but the impact of the score is breathtaking. The final ensemble soars but, like Bauby’s life, ends abruptly, implying that there is much more we weren’t permitted to hear.

Music Director and conductor Emmanuel Villaume marshaled the musical complexity of the score, orchestra, and large cast of soloists like a confident Formula One driver. He navigated complex cross-rhythm patterns, conflicting time signatures, and balance challenges created by Talbot’s multi-level score.

Elaine J. McCarthy’s projection-dependent sets put the action in a huge and topsy-turvy hall of mirrors. The tutta forza cacophony of the opening orchestral outburst cracks the mirrors into fissures, reflecting the moment of Bauby’s cerebral calamity. Other scenes, such as the beach and Bauby’s office, are vacant and implied by properties and mime.

Leonard Foglia’s direction keeps his actors crisply moving through a mostly vacant stage in an almost choreographic manner. Yet he gives them ample space for some emotional interactions. David Woolard’s costumes are utilitarian, as befits an opera mostly set in a hospital. Russell Champa’s lighting is dramatic and capped off by creating Bauby’s blinking eye for the audience to experience as well.

Lucas Meachem (seated) and Richard Croft in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (credit: Kyle Flubacker)

Lucas Meachem (seated) and Richard Croft in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (credit: Kyle Flubacker)

One of the questions going into the premiere was how Scheer and Talbot would present a leading character who is unable to speak, let alone sing opera. One solution would have been to use a body double with the singer voicing his speechless thoughts. However, they pushed the fantasy by allowing baritone Lucas Meachem to do both. As Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do), he was both bed patient and narrator. His sturdy voice allowed him to present a wide range of emotions, and was only occasionally caught up in the moment and over-singing.

Because Bauby was considering writing a modern update of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Scheer incorporated some characters from that classic novel in this work. He introduces Abbé Faria, who was incarcerated with the hero of Dumas’ novel, as a foil for Bauby’s musings. Although many in the audience had no idea who he was or why he was in this opera, tenor Richard Croft was terrific. His soaring tenor and dramatic interplay with Bauby added many helpful plot details.

The star of the show is mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Sylvie, an ex and mother of Bauby’s much-adored children. Vocally, the richness of her voice has only improved since we last admired her in Everest. Dramatically, her portrayal of this multi-faceted character is vivid. Caught between Bauby’s tragic situation and caring for their two children, we sense her trauma and difficulties.

Sasha Cooke and Kevin Burdette (standing), with Lucas Meachem in ":The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." (credit: Kyle Flubacker)

Sasha Cooke and Kevin Burdette (standing), with Lucas Meachem in “:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” (credit: Kyle Flubacker)

Soprano Deanna Breiwick is excellent as the stalwart Claude, assigned by Bauby’s publisher to coax the memoir out of him one letter at a time.

Soprano Andriana Chuchman plays two roles. One is Sandrine, Bauby’s speech therapist. The other is Mercédès, another character from The Count of Monte Cristo, who unexpectedly pops up.

Tenor Andrew Bidlack is excellent as Bauby’s doctor. He puts an edge on his impressive tenor voice to be irritatingly efficient, seeing Bauby only as an interesting puzzle to be solved.

Bass Kevin Burdette brings his wonderfully deep voice and superb acting chops to creating the role of Bauby’s father, Papinou. He is old and has trouble getting around, in addition to coping with the tragedy that has befallen his son.

Bauby’s children have speaking roles and are dramatically believable. Ava Jafari portrays Céleste and Austin Howarth plays Théophile. (I was told that the real-life children were in attendance for the premiere.)


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Filling out the cast, soprano Jocelyn Hansen presents a nervous Lea, and Martin Luther Clark, Jr creates a believable orderly.

Overall, this new opera is a huge success. The only criticism is the program’s scant audience preparation, which could be a drawback for those who didn’t prepare — read the novel or watch the much more depressing movie beforehand. Some in the audience were bewildered.

There is no better closing statement to these musings than the one with which Jean-Dominique Bauby ends his memoir (in Jeremy Leggatt’s sensitive translation).

“Does the cosmos contain keys for opening up my diving bell? A subway line with no terminus? A currency strong enough to buy my freedom back? We must keep looking. I’ll be off now.”

The Dallas Opera’s production of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly continues with performances November 8 & 11, 2023, at the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, plus a livestream of the November 11 performance.

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About the author:
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs is a Dallas-based composer, conductor, and journalist. He is also a coach and teacher with a private studio.

Read more by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs.
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