Ça Ira is an opera in three acts. The genesis for the project began in the late 1980s when Etienne Roda-Gil and his wife Nadine brought Roger Waters an illustrated 50-page libretto for an opera about the French Revolution and asked him to set music to it. Although he is a rock musician, he wrote the vast majority of music and lyrics to the last great rock opera, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and other concept albums, so the scope and epic nature of the project were well within his talents. He wrote a classical score and a new set of English lyrics.
As the first CD begins it sounds like many of Waters’ works with non-musical sound effects enhancing the piece. A strong wind is heard blowing. A dog barks in the distance. But instead of a guitar kicking in, a fife and drum are heard marching by, approaching from one speaker and leaving out the other. Then the ringmaster informs us that the players are getting ready. Ça Ira uses a circus performed before an audience filled with members representing all walks of life and class as the narrative device. Sometimes the characters watch the circus, other times they are participants in the ring.
The real life events of Ça Ira occurred between 1789-93 and led to overthrow of King Louis XVI and the establishment of the Republic. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are victims of the people’s revolt and are imprisoned. Repercussions are felt around the world as revolution sweeps through the French colonies of the Caribbean. The Pope speaks outs and condemns the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The King and Queen attempt to flee Paris but are recaptured. Prussia and Austria threaten military action to reinstate the King, but it does not stop the Royal couples’ beheading as can be heard by the falling guillotine. Characters close out the tale wondering “can the use of violence and terror, ever be justified to achieve liberty?” They hope that the dreams that inspired the revolution will be fully realized. “The promise of the Republic lies within” is the last line of the English libretto.
Ça Ira was supposed to be unveiled during the bicentennial celebration, but ended up taking 15 years to complete the project. When Francois Mitterrand was President, the opera was almost performed at Opera Bastille. Waters went back to the project in the early ‘90s and wrote the English lyrics. He and conductor Rick Wentworth produced and were in charge of the orchestration & choral arrangements. They put together an international ensemble to bring the opera to life. Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, Chinese soprano Ying Huang, American tenor Paul Groves, and Niger vocalist Ismael Lo play the principal characters. The choirs are from Italy and London
While I’m not a big opera buff, I enjoyed Ça Ira The musicians and singers did a very good job bringing an interesting and important story to life. While in a different format, the opera covers familiar themes from other works by Waters, so fans of his song lyrics should appreciate this. Waters says, “Although it’s rooted in the history of the revolution, its philosophical slant is, I suppose, contemporary as well. It’s more than just a history of the French Revolution, it’s a piece about the human potential for change.”
It was strange to hear the lyrics in English because other operas I’ve heard have been in Italian or German. This might have been to make “Ça Ira” more accessible but it didn’t always assure that the lyrics could be understood when the singers hit high notes, held long syllables or a few people were singing at the same time. One of the discs is supposed to contain the lyrics, but mine did not. Having the libretto to read along with would have made the story easier to follow. I am curious to hear it sung in French since that is the story’s natural language.
Extensive liner notes feature the original illustrations created by Nadine Roda-Gil as well as talent biographies, a reflection by Waters, background about the project, and a synopsis of the opera. Fans of Waters will be interested to know that limited first editions are comprised of a double SACD DigiPack and a deluxe 60-page, four-color booklet that is expanded to include Waters’ lyrics based on Etienne Roda-Gil’s original French libretto. There is also a special DVD documentary chronicling the “making of” the opera that traces the history of the project, from conception to completion, and includes revelatory interviews with Waters and the musicians and cast of Ça Ira as well as exclusive in-the-studio footage of the recording of the opera. Ça Ira is being released in the hybrid SACD (Super Audio CD) format in Dolby Digital 5.1 SurroundSound. The hybrid SACD disks are compatible with standard CD players.
El Bicho is a member of The Masked Music Snobs