Les Éclairs

Phillipe Hersant, Libretto by Jean Echenoz
Opéra Comique
Opéra Comique, Paris

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Jean-Christophe Lanièce and the Cast of Les Éclairs Credit: Stefan Brion
Jean-Christophe Lanièce and the Cast of Les Éclairs Credit: Stefan Brion
Jean-Christophe Lanièce and the Cast of Les Éclairs Credit: Stefan Brion

Eclairs conjures up images of those long, thin individual cakes of choux pastry with cream and topped with chocolate icing. Delicious…

So, if you told me there was a show on in Paris called Les Éclairs, I should guess it was either sexy vaudeville in the Folies Bergère manner or a naughty French comic operetta from La Belle Époque with lots and lots of innuendo.

And how wrong I would be. Éclair in French means flash of lightning. The pastry manufacturers hijacked the word for their product. Les Éclairs is an opera by Phillipe Hersant, commissioned by Opéra Comique, which premièred in Paris on 2 November 2021.

Jean Echenoz’s libretto is based on his 2010 short verse novel, a fictional biography of the brilliant and under-acknowledged Serbian-American inventor and electric engineer Nikola Tesla (1856–1948), best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current electricity supply system, so crucial to the world’s social development.

The opera, conducted by Ariane Matiakh and directed by Clément Hervieu-Léger, is a series of short scenes, excellently orchestrated, sung and acted. I enjoyed it very much.

Tesla (Jean-Christophe Lanièce), who was born during a lightning storm, arrives in New York in 1884, having fixed the ship’s malfunctioning engine. He is hailed as a genius and becomes an instant celebrity, adored by society women.

Thomas Edison (André Heyboer) is caricatured as a capitalist megalomaniac monster who wants to terrify the world. He sees Tesla as a threat to his monopoly and does everything to damage and destroy his reputation, inventing the electric chair and publicly killing a murderer who has received the death sentence.

Tesla (renamed Gregor in the opera) is employed by a banker industrialist (Jérôme Boutillier) who is interested only in scientific discoveries if they are profit making for him and drops him the moment they don’t.

Gregor, who is devoted to the common good and wants everybody to have free energy, is befriended by a philanthropist (François Rougier) whose wife (Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur) falls in love with him and wants to elope with him. He is also loved by a journalist (Elsa Benoit) who writes for The New York Herald. He is indifferent to both women.

Jean-Christophe Lanièce is excellent as the naïve and ambitious oddball, who becomes involved in more and more delusional scientific projects until finally he is rejected by everybody. He ends up all alone with just the pigeons in Central Park for company.

Phillipe Hersant’s Les Éclairs can be watched free on the OperaVision channel.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch