A foghorn blows, the ocean crashes, and Les Éclairs (Lightning Bolts) lifts off, a fantasia on the life of the dazzling Serbian-born Nikola Tesla—inventor, futurist, and idol to Elon Musk. Its creators call it a drame joyeux.
For reasons best known to the novelist-turned-librettist Jean Echenoz, the protagonist goes by the name Gregor. But it’s Tesla, all right, duking it out against Thomas Edison, the rock-star “Wizard of Menlo Park,” in the notorious War of the Currents. At stake was the electrification of America. Would the grid run on direct current, generating staggering royalties for Edison? Or on Tesla’s alternating current? Spoiler alert: Tesla won, but that’s not the end of our story.
Les Éclairs skips along like a graphic novel, in crisp scenes that waste no time. The pulse of Philippe Hersant’s score is, yes, electric. Now dense and dark as onyx, now diaphanous in layered hues of the rainbow, the instrumentals bristle with the excitement and swirl of the Gilded Age, sparking spiffy solo riffs from the pit. In the singing parts, words, music, and character fuse with Gallic elegance.
Drawn in nimble strokes, our brainiac Gregor/Tesla is a dreamer, a savant, maybe even a Holy Fool—part St. Francis of Assisi, part Buster Keaton, part Chance the Gardener from Kosinski’s grave yet feather-light fable Being There. Jean-Christophe Lanièce’s limber baritone, lanky frame, and naïf’s grace suit the creators’ conception to a T.
Another baritone (and a dead ringer for the actor Alfred Molina), André Heyboer gives Edison both bark and bite. Aptly so: here’s a tycoon who fights dirty to protect his market position, staging cold-blooded electrocutions of domestic animals, an elephant, even a human being. As a philanthropist’s wife who throws herself at Gregor, the mezzo-soprano Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur projects obsession in tones that are warm but limpid. As a reporter who takes a more sisterly interest, the soprano Elsa Benoit strikes a cooler, equally limpid note.
Directed by Clément Hervieu-Léger, the spare but stylish production makes a virtue of economy. Gregor’s heart soars, and so will yours, at the flock of origami birds. Under the vibrant baton of Ariane Matiakh, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and choristers of the Ensemble Aedes deliver spirit, finesse, and bounce.
For the record: the Salle Favart, home of the Opéra Comique, went fully electric in 1898, the first European theater to do so. Where better to tell Tesla’s story?
Les Éclairs is available for streaming on medici.tv
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii