‘Girondines’ tells of the reformist women opposing the French Revolution’s Jacobins
The Saturday matinee-Sunday evening cast / Wesley Jow

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — Composer Sarah Van Sciver and Librettist Kirsten C. Kunkle have come to town for a two-day, four-performance outing of their opera Girondines, seen Oct. 28, courtesy of the daring new Mission Opera company. It tells of the lives of six historically documented women in Paris during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror (1792-93), who either came from the Gironde or were associated with the politics of the Gironde.

The very reference to Gironde announces the controversial nature of these individuals. A spirit of opposition to the more radical tendencies of the Revolution, epitomized by the Jacobins under Robespierre and Marat, dominated the thinking of this department of France, located in the southwest of France at the estuary where the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers empty into the Atlantic Ocean at Bordeaux.

How curious that in the space of only five months’ time, two stage works have hit the boards in Greater Los Angeles that focus on the famous women of the Revolutionary era. Lauren Gunderson’s play The Revolutionists, in fact, featured three of the same women in its cast—the feminist writer Olympe de Gouges, the driven Girondiste Charlotte Corday (who murdered Marat in his bathtub), and the deposed Queen Marie Antoinette (although she appears in the opera only as a silent character, not one of the six named characters).

Girondines saw its world premiere in Delaware with Van Sciver and Kunkle’s project, Wilmington Concert Opera (WCO), one year ago in October 2022. WCO calls itself  “an exclusively woman and minority run company…founded on principles of diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility.” The very fact that this ready-made package virtually entirely created, directed, choreographed, produced, staged and performed by women was now available for its second hearing and a West Coast premiere was itself a welcome factor in Mission Opera artistic and executive director Dr. Joshua R. Wentz’s consideration, as he expressed in his welcoming remarks to the audience.

Kirstein C. Dunkle as Charlotte Corday / Wesley Jow

Kirsten C. Kunkle is an Indigenous (Muscogee) opera singer and librettist, and a cofounder of WCO. The women she lifts up in Girondines “presumably knew one another, met in secret before the Reign of Terror, and supported one another during the political upheaval…, three of whom were guillotined and three of whom lived. Sarah and I are working to further our own legacy of women, both in the history of the women featured in the opera, and also by creating visceral and important roles for women in opera.”

No evidence exists that these women were indeed close friends, but artistic conceit can legitimately posit the presumption.

Extreme polarization

In many ways the opera mirrors our own time, an era of extreme polarization. In their radicalism, the Jacobins associated any moderate views as inherently monarchist, and used rumor, suspicion and false accusation as convenient grounds to rid France of its perceived “enemies of the people.” In the radical rush toward overturning every political and cultural institution—even reinventing the calendar itself—the voices of reformist, conservative democratic Republicans such as the Girondists were violently suppressed, up to and including exile at best and the guillotine at worst. Although, to be sure, among the Girondists, some did support a constitutional monarchy.

The character of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in the opera illustrates these tendencies. Her legacy extends to the present day, as much as or more than any of the other figures in the cast, perhaps with the exception of the famous murderess Charlotte Corday. Vigée Le Brun was a prolific and highly sought-after neoclassical painter, mostly a sensitive portraitist, who survived to the age of 86, dying in 1842. She escaped France to live in exile for a number of years, where she garnered prominent commissions in a number of European courts. She had been an intimate friend of Marie Antoinette, and among her 600-plus canvases, she painted over 20 portraits of her, before and after her occupation of the throne. Almost all her subjects were the “beautiful people.” No wonder she was deemed suspect.

And don’t forget that Corday herself, aka Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont, famously guillotined at age 24, came from a minor aristocratic family. The sorority of salonistes worry that Charlotte’s scheme to murder Marat could endanger all of them as aristocrats and sympathizers. “They talk of treason, when we talk of logic,” they sing benignly.

In their arias and ensembles, many of the other ladies in the opera express similar desires to return to the comforts, pleasures and privileges of the past—their servants, their elegant homes, their careers, their salons and tea parties, their ability to freely discuss politics and ideas without fear. The French Revolution was a great democratic advance: It overthrew the arrogant absolute monarchy and concentrated power in an elected parliament dominated by the bourgeoisie, the up-and-coming merchants, industrialists, traders, bankers and financiers, slavers, landowners and rentiers who had chafed under aristocratic favoritism. But of course, this new stage of history, born in violence, also opened up new contradictions. If the bourgeoisie rose to become the ruling class, it would itself, in time, be contested by newer forces. In the meantime, one could say in simplistic terms, the class represented by the Girondines won out, though their feminist demands would still have to wait for more than another century.

As an example of the issues raised and not raised by the women in the opera, women’s equality was definitely one, strongly rejected by the new Republican régime. And slavery and the fate of the French colonies were never mentioned (to my recollection)—although this had been a central point in the play The Revolutionists. Slavery was only abolished by the representative Convention in 1794, after the worst years of the Jacobin Terror—and later reinstated under Napoleon.

Les Six—the six women

One of the virtues of this production is that all six primary roles were double-cast, a practical caution in this age of Covid and other maladies. Each cast performed twice, one on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening, the other Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Mission Opera was kind enough to grant this reviewer admission to both Saturday performances so as to better appreciate this new work and its iteration by different singers.

The role of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was sung by Laurice Simmons Kennel and Agnese Gallenzi; and Charlotte Corday by Kirsten C. Kunkle and Catherine Antonia Samaritan.

Writer and feminist polemicist Olympe de Gouges, guillotined in 1793, was portrayed by Ashley Becker and Jessica Tivens-Schneiderman: “I challenged Rousseau, Beaumarchais, Robespierre. Philosophy is threatening when it comes from a woman.” Madame Manon Roland, aka Marie-Jeanne Roland de la Platière, née Phlipon, a moderate feminist writer—and hostess of the salon where we meet our cast—who died on the guillotine also in 1793, at age 39, was sung by Claire Pegram and Leeza Yorke.

The two remaining characters both survived the Revolution. Madame Germaine de Staël, aka Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, née Necker, a political writer, saloniste, fashionista and ardent hater of Napoleon Bonaparte, had been born in Geneva, and retreated to her native country in exile. She married the Swedish ambassador, and died in 1817 at age 51. She was portrayed by Kaitlyn Tierney and Alexis Wesley. Finally, we had Marisa Robinson and Erika Nicole Alatorre singing the role of Marie-Anne Pierrrette Paulze Lavoisier, aka the Countess von Rumford, a translator, illustrator, and most notably a chemist carrying on the work of her more famous husband Antoine Lavoisier.

The production

French operatic tradition always insisted on a ballet scene, and Girondines did not lack for one—more than one, actually—for a solo dancer, performed alternately by Maiko Okajima and Savanna Rae Gonzalez. The modern interpretive choreography was integrated into the dramatic action and served as a welcome distraction when most of the other music consisted of prosaic, often choral conversation among the six women. In addition, an ensemble of supernumeraries who served refreshments, moved furniture and sets, played executioner, the now-citizen Marie Antoinette and other functions, included Kirstin Ariel, Nelya Coomans, Robert Dunlap, Erik Alessandro Mondrian, Juan Antonio Rivera, and Jason Vincent. The four-piece orchestra, led by composer and pianist Sarah Van Sciver, included David Oleg Manukyan on violin, Beryl Acosta on cello, and Leila Bishop on harp.

Tonya Nelson served as the production’s costume designer, and her amazing work was on elegant display throughout. In fact, unless you saw both ensembles you wouldn’t even know that Nelson devised entirely different costumes for each cast. Brian Nelson was the lighting master. For many of the other functions, the original creators filled in: Ms. Kunkle directed and choreographed her opera, and Ms. Van Sciver was the musical and technical director, production manager, graphics, projection, props and sound designer, supertitle designer (in English, Spanish and French), and the lead translator.

The cast of Girondines. | Eric Gordon / People’s World

Projections of both interior and exterior scenes busily flooded the backstage screen with images from the Revolutionary period and at many points nearly overwhelmed the discourse on stage. The supertitles were useful, even for those who know English, as sung dialogue, especially when many voices are singing, is often difficult to understand on a first hearing. The fact that the titles were rendered in three languages on monitors placed stage left and right, meant that they were often presented in a type font too small to grasp all at once. Still, those monitors could also have served not just to announce the number of the scene (information not especially useful to the audience), but also to identify the more than a dozen different settings—such as Summer 1792, Summer 1793, Autumn 1793, Summer 1807, Spring 1817, Spring 1827, Summer 1827, not to mention place—which an operagoer might more or less surmise but would really only know by reading the dense program notes which were available only by QR link.

Meeting the challenge

Despite its six-woman cast (plus extras), its 14 scenes in two acts (with intermission) and a variety of locales and times, Girondines is not a long opera—only 70 or 75 minutes (plus that entr’acte). In such a short time is it possible to create a convincing story about six different people over a timespan of more than 30 years? And what’s more, tell it in a musically satisfying way? It took the classical French opera five acts to accomplish that!

I can’t answer those questions, but that was the challenge that the composer and librettist faced.

They certainly had some earlier examples to emulate—the play on the same subject, The Revolutionists, for one. In opera, certainly the 1956 Francis Poulenc opera Dialogues of the Carmelites, an almost all-women conversation with a libretto by the composer based on a work of the same name by Georges Bernanos, about an order of nuns during the French Revolution similarly accused of being counter-revolutionaries. As in Girondines, the guillotine is a non-verbal (but hardly soundless) character in the opera.

Other models come to mind, like Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, about Susan B. Anthony, with a dadaistic libretto by Gertrude Stein, which features historical characters speaking of themselves in the third person in a musical mode that anticipates minimalism. And the operas of Philip Glass, whose powerful repetitive music dominates the text (which is often in some unintelligible language), and where prosody—that is, the way music fits the speech pattern with correctly stressed syllables and shape—is among his least concerns.

An old, but ever reliable dictum in writing is “Show, don’t tell.” The libretto for Girondines is almost all “tell,” and virtually all from a contemporary point of view. Inadequate space and time don’t permit deep characterization to emerge out of the relationships formed over the course of the opera. Late in the opera, we learn “whatever happened to” each of them, and how they coped with life or faced death, often in the first person, but in a homogenized, hortatory text devoid of poetry. It’s like a short educational pamphlet with brief profiles of these women, sung. The music rushes forward to push through a great deal of didactic exposition.

Even when a character is singing, just about everybody else is also on stage contributing their voices to the monotonous conversation. Each character has her moment when she steps forward with a kernel of her own story, but unlike a standard opera, her factual aria rarely soars with emotion or feeling. In fact, without the aforementioned entirely digital program, it was even hard to determine who was who, and after a while, most of them tended to blend into one another indistinguishably. Oh, yes, this one’s an artist—we see her painting. This other one’s the chemist—we see her laboratory. And here’s the fashionista with her over-the-top outfits. And Charlotte, of course, she is quite foregrounded in the story.

One memorable scene has the dancer reach out to the painter stage-right and the chemist stage left and motion them together: “Science and art, two halves of a single whole. Together they are essential, they are divine.”

“France lives on,” sing the ensemble at the end, “and our names are there, etched in the legacy.” The opera, along with the histories that inform it, advocates against erasure.

The composer and librettist are both young, passionate in their commitments and eager to share them. In a few years, perhaps, they will look back on this early work and discern some of its weaknesses. For one thing, its unrelenting and not especially individuated score. For another, its studied acceptance of every woman without judgment of any kind, as when the painter Vigée Le Brun, forced into exile, sings, without irony, “I am yet another scapegoat for a cause beyond my experience,” revealing both a tin ear for lyrics and a colossal political naïveté. As when Madame Roland, hostess of the salon, sings, “I am much like most women of today.” Can you imagine referring to the deposed King Louis XVI, convicted of international intrigue to regain his crown, and simply saying he was “murdered?”

It was brave of Mission Opera to give this new feminist work a West Coast exposure, however history will judge its merits, and one can be grateful for that. The Santa Clarita company’s future includes stagings of Madama Butterfly and The Merry Widow.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.