While the Dutch National Ballet recently created a ballet on Mata Hari it is difficult to see why the story has never been turned in to a major opera. One would have thought any diva would gladly die for the title role. Still, I’m sure one day someone will write it.
In the meantime Façade, The Last Days of Mata Hari gives us a glimpse of what we might expect. Although by no means an opera, it is a simple but beautifully staged piece – more of a dramatised recital. As the title might suggest, it deals with the period from the condemned spy’s arrival at Saint-Lazare prison in Paris until her execution at Vincennes in October 1917.
The presentation is simple, a bare stage and a grand piano supplemented by a camp bed. Claron McFadden, who plays Mata and pianist Claire Chevallier, who also has a few lines, wear plain, long white dresses augmented occasionally by nun’s attire – Saint-Lazare was also a convent and hospital run by nuns.
It all takes place behind gauze which enables the multi-media aspects to come into play. For stage decor, gauze is a magic device. Lit from the front it is like a wall, solid and opaque; lit from behind it becomes completely transparent. So nearly all the singing and action takes place behind while projected on the front are captions, graphics, photos, sub-titles (the lyrics and the majority of the text are in French) and most impressive of all, a giant four meter high talking head, a bespectacled actor reading text and quoting from memoirs, letters and official documents.
The story is told through the spoken word and by a selection of cleverly chosen songs of the period which convey its atmosphere and emotions. There are songs by Debussy, Poulenc, Massenet, Satie, Saint-Saëns among others, as well as Old Sir Faulk, with words by Edith Sitwell, from William Walton’s glorious Façade which was sung in front of the gauze to demonstrate Mata Hari’s music-hall prowess. The word façade is also used in the title of the piece, justified by a description of the femme fatale in the text as having a persona and appearance that was totally contrived and false – a front to conceal her true identity.
The whole thing worked brilliantly and Ms McFadden sang well and has an engaging personality. The piano was played beautifully by Claire Chevallier, who also served as musical dramaturg, and the readings were delivered with an easy authority on the big screen by Josse De Pauw.
The French government archives relating to the Mata Hari affair were released last year, one hundred years after her execution, and throw considerable doubt on her being a genuine German spy. However, employing the maxim of never letting the truth spoil a good story, the legend lives on.
All those involved in Façade, The Last Days of Mata Hari, especially its producers Muziektheater Transparant, deserve the highest praise. An excellent concept perfectly executed, if you’ll pardon the pun. Michael Hasted 20th May 2018.