Shell Shock: inside-out war horror

One hundred years ago the European nations went to a war they thought it would be over by Christmas but ended actually thirty-one years later (World War II is considered nowadays a mere continuation of World World I) with an approximative altogether death toll of 80 million people –who knows exactly the number?
Out of this suffering the Belgian composer Nicholas Lens and the Belgo-Moroccan choreographer and director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui have created an opera that is no longer on stage but is available on the internet (from November 14th). Although the alternative Australian pop-star Nick Cave has written the lyrics, which are sung in English, the final result breathes a very Belgian character, that is to say, deals with the theme of the destruction of human lives at an industrial scale without myths or heroes, stressing the meaninglessness of war. The opera is properly described in the programme as a dance oratorio in twelve scenes, the plot being too vague to consider it an opera and the dance on an equal footing with the music.
The dance is electrifying. The dancers seemed to be puppets whose strings are pulled by someone cruel and angry. Their movements, whether individually or in groups, fill the almost empty scene to embody the countless victims of this drama, from the initial colonial soldier to deserters, survivors, the disappeared or the wounded, who, in a subtle scene, are transported one by one in stretchers to be replaced constantly by another piece of cannon fodder. With few props, we imagine easily the action populated mainly by dancers-soldiers who fight, die or run away.
The music of this world premiere serves dutifully the dancing, at the beginning with distressing choirs, later with minimalistic marches that increase beat by beat the emotion on stage. While the choice of voices is effective, the countertenor score is splendid, conveying the power and oddness of this high-pitched voice from the theatre of war to the seats of the Theatre de la Monnaie, as if we attended the horrors of a Baroque opera which have been turned inside out.

image credits © La Monnaie