A Simple Tale, Well-Told

Jules Massenet's The Juggler of Notre Dame (Le Jongleur de Notre Dame) was first performed in 1902, and until Central City Opera took it on, it hadn't been staged in the United States for half a century. It's a medieval tale, with an essentially timeless theme -- the same story you hear every Christmas when carolers sing "The Little Drummer Boy."

Jean le Jongleur is a vagabond entertainer. Weary and essentially starving, he arrives at a village square and prepares to perform. But the villagers -- an ugly-spirited lot, as portrayed by Massenet and librettist Maurice Lena -- mock his efforts and eventually goad this deeply religious man into singing a sacrilegious hymn to drunkenness and wine. Jean's performance is overheard by a sanctimonious prior, who assures him that he'll burn in hell unless he immediately enters the prior's abbey. Jean is torn. He loves his freedom, but he's afraid of hell. He's also hungry, and he knows the monks have plenty of food. Once in the abbey, however, he finds himself more out of place than ever, mocked by the monks -- who turn out to be as petty and nasty as the townspeople -- shamed by his own ignorance of Latin, unable to find a way of expressing his soul-deep love of God.

The turning point comes when the abbey's cook, Boniface, explains that making soup, too, can be an act of worship, and sings to Jean a full-throated aria about the humble sage plant that hid the infant Jesus from Herod's soldiers when the flashy rose had refused to do so. Inspired, Jean decides to dedicate his own mundane art to the Virgin Mary and performs a hopping little dance in front of her portrait. And lo, to the astonishment of the gathered and highly critical monks, he is lifted into heaven.

It's a simple, linear plot, and The Juggler of Notre Dame is a short opera. The music is craftsmanlike rather than dazzling: Only Boniface's song about the sage and the rose provides the kind of heart-stirring drama we tend to expect from the genre. And it's odd to hear an opera in which all the voices -- with the exception of a little angelic, off-stage singing at the end -- are male.

Fortunately, in the CCO production, these voices are not only fine, but finely balanced. Gaetan Laperriere gives the prior poised dignity, and his voice lays down a strong bass line beneath Jon Garrison's mellifluous, flowing tenor. As Boniface, Eduardo Chama provides the most moving moments of the evening with his aria about the fleeing Virgin, the menacing soldiers and the threatened Christ child. Chama has a powerful, expressive, textured baritone, and he's also a passionate actor. It's hard to reconcile the mean-spiritedness of the monks portrayed by Daniel Cilli, Liam Bonner, Michael Scarcelle and Theodore Chletsos with the purity of their voices. J. David Jackson leads the orchestra with controlled verve.

Director Ken Cazan has set this Juggler not in medieval times, but in France, shortly after the first world war. For contemporary audiences, that's long enough ago not to interfere with the timeless, magical quality of the work, but sufficiently recent and evocative to add spice to the villagers' cynicism -- they, after all, are almost as hungry and deprived as the juggler -- and resonance to Massenet's simple assertion that the practice of an art form is an act of faith, and in itself redemptive. Designer Peter Harrison has incorporated segments from Monet's paintings of the Rouen Cathedral into the set, and Alice Marie Kugler Bristow's costumes mix realistic lines with magical colors that reflect Monet's work. David Martin Jacques's lighting adds a glow the color of molten honey to the proceedings. In all, this Juggler has the fragrance and quiet grace of Boniface's sage plant.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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