Hot on the heels of The Spirit of Harriet Tubman (cross-reference below), Raymond Saint-Jean’s Le Mozart Noir might well find its way into required viewing/hearing for future installments of Black History Month. With the irrepressible energy and skill of Jeanne Lamon and Tafelmusik Orchestra providing the seldom-performed score, and Kendall Knights’ most excellent physique and haunting eyes miming the title role, this production—despite the fact that it asks more questions than are answered—is a welcome addition to the cause of entry-level accessibility of our most universal art.
From the opening jail scene, where Joseph Boulogne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges awaits his post-Revolution fate, it’s clear that Saint-Jean understands that the music must lead—the drama can fall where it may. Cutting to the players, the opening selection has just the right amount of reverb to imagine it being played in a high-ceilinged, stone-wall prison, adding aural, if subliminal, verisimilitude to the sequence. The invigorating sound swirls with waves of Mozart’s 25th Symphony’s syncopation and drive, only in need of a second subject that might remain in memory after the resin dust settles.
The capable narrator and a montage of period prints soon provide the back-story of the Guadeloupe, mixed-race (“mulatto” has been expunged from polite conversation years ago and rings a false note with every utterance here) boy who, with mid-aristocrat father and plantation-slave mother decide to return to Paris and find a way to crack “enlightened” society’s taboos.
Soon the determined teen is beating all comers with his rapier, which he exchanges for a violin bow, then a composer’s plume, bursting into the upper class with his incredible musical talent and legendary bedroom dexterity. But to no avail. Exotic as he is, no Parisian woman would dare marry an “animal without a soul,” but, nonetheless, aren’t averse to a sample. A short ballet, with masks lurking in the background, shows a trio of courtly beauties teasing their favourite celebrity before he cuts in and separates the wheat from the chaff, oddly echoing Maddin’s Dracula: Page’s from a Virgin’s Diary (cross-reference below) in this stylish Invitation to the Dance. But before you can say “contraception,” the resultant baby is ordered dead.
From time to time, additional facts, comments and musical offerings are interlaced with the action. At this conjuncture, Lamon and soloist Linda Melsted make the case that the “Adagio” from Saint-George’s D Major Concerto with its “simplicity” and “tender sighs” is the requiem for his child who also began life from mixed parentage, but couldn’t rise above gossip and scandal.
Not as successful is Saint-George historian, Gabriel Banat whose equally out-of-tune excerpts of a phrase found in the Sinfonia Concertantes of Saint-George and Mozart fail to convince that one copied the other after the storied pair briefly shared the same postal code.
Saint-George’s ultimate humiliation is being deprived of the vacant music director’s post at the Paris Opera on the strength of a poison-pen letter to the Queen from the reigning Diva’s. “Queen’s of the Night” indeed!
Politics, revolution and anti-slavery organizations start to crowd the stage and the fabled musician, after successfully leading a ghettoized battalion in the defence of France, finds his shaky connection to the aristocracy lands him on death row. For once, even his plume “I address myself to your sense of justice” cannot overturn his sentence.
As the story winds up, more music flows. The superimposition of the jailed artist conducting, like the earlier, mercifully brief shots of him playing grate on the ear and eye. With such magnificent performances from the real musicians beautifully rendered in so many frames, the “close but no cigar” bow and arm syncing of the hero does everyone a disservice when compared with the many thoughtful body shots and penetrating glances, which underscore the special moments so much more effectively.
Loose ends abound: once winning the fencing title, where did Saint-George’s parents go? The black superstar premièred Haydn’s “Paris” Symphonies, did they ever have contact again? Why not mention that, like Mozart, Saint-George was a Mason—a stronger link, perhaps, than a scrap of tune.
Quibbles aside, the biggest question remains in the last half of the title: “Reviving a Legend.” With only one third of his work surviving, will the next discovered score send the musical public into hysterical jubilation? Or will the publication of a personal encounter from a hidden-away diary of one of his short-lived conquests become an overnight best seller? JWR