As I've said in another review, I've seen the Cirque du Soleil perform twice, once in a small traditional circus tent set up in a supermarket parking lot, and once in the bawdy, gaudy magnificence of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
The tent show, a touring performance entitled Alegria, was simultaneously immediate and mysterious, intimate and astonishing. O, a resident show at the Bellagio, is set up in a specially modified auditorium to accommodate the enormous water tank, the several-story stage, and the thousands who fill the audience every night. I found the performance almost overwhelming in scope, difficult to encompass.
Both performances, however, had certain aspects in common, aspects that have come, over the years, to symbolize the unique effect of the Cirque du Soleil. Both contained superb feats of human skill, of course -- acrobatics, dance, mime, clowning, contortion, and so on. But the Cirque offers more than that, much more. Rather than being a series of unconnected demonstrations, each Cirque show tells a story, flowing from act to act. It is always visually stunning, making use of bizarrely beautiful sets and bold, ribald costumes that manage to simultaneously tantalize and unsettle the viewer. And the underpinning of all of it is the music. All circuses have music. Music is used to give the performers their cues -- to let the blind-folded tightrope walker know when to step off of the tightrope onto the platform, for example. It is also used to create a mood for each act. The fire-breather gets ominous music, while the lovely unicyclist with the paper umbrellas gets a delicate and sprightly tune with Asian influences. The Cirque uses music this way, but also as a genuine "score." Each Cirque show has music that carries the story, moves it forward, provides moments of pause, leads it to climax (or more than one climax) and resolves it. For this reason, audience members rush out in droves after each performance to snap up CDs of the soundtrack. They want to take the story home with them.
"Alegria" means "jubilation" in Spanish, and Alegria is about the movement from youth to old age, and from monarchy to democracy; and how only the clowns, with their capacity for alegria, are able to bridge the spans of time and power. The opening theme, "Alegria," contains the following lyrics in English, Spanish, and Italian:
I see a spark of light shining. Alegria,
I hear a young minstrel sing. Alegria,
Beautiful roaring scream
Of joy and sorrow, so extreme.
There is a love in me raging. Alegria,
Like an assault of joy."
The words are sung by Francesca Gagnon, in a rich, husky alto with ferocious raw power. The instrumentation is appropriately large and powerful. The ensuing eleven pieces carry the theme of jubilation forward. "Val Vedral" is a playful, sensual piece, shaped once again by Gagnon, her voice this time intimate and almost lazy in places, throbbing in others. She is supported by the half sad, half jolly lilt of an accordion played by Francis Covan and the wailing of a saw played by Rodrique "Chocolat" Tremblay.
"Jeux D'Enfants" is merry and youthful, with Covan's accordion countered by tuba (Dennis Miller), euphonium (Frederic Lair), and piccolo trumpet (Roger Wallis). "Icare" is full of the ominous thunder of Joe Bertrand's timpani and the soaring cry of a violin (also played by Francis Covan), evoking the doomed flight of the winged boy. And finally, "Nocturne" reprises the accordion, this time subdued, with a smoky, film-noire flugelhorn (Joey Sommerville) and sliding bass (Marc Langis). "Nocturne" trails off with a reprise of the light merry sounds of "Jeux D'Enfants," a clangor of chimes, and the accordion...
"A young girl fumes; she has already seen everything there is to see, and her world has lost all meaning. Her anger shatters her little world, and she finds herself in the universe of Quidam. She is joined by a joyful companion as well as another character, more mysterious, who will attempt to seduce her with the marvellous, the unsettling, and the terrifying." Quidam is Everyman, but he is also the anonymous passerby, the one who observes and yet dissolves into the fabric of the world around us. Quidam feels like a Broadway musical. Several of the pieces have multi-voiced choirs, orchestra, and booming timpani.
The opening piece, "Atmadja," is full of brooding, sweeping strings, introducing the big-city melancholy and roar. "Marelle" is plaintive, with a light, sweet girl's voice (Audrey Brisson-Jutras) lamenting to the three/four lilt of a classical guitar plucked by Jean-Marie Benoit. "Rivage" has a dark, jungle sound to it, with sharp percussion and the half-whispered voice of Mathieu Lavoie hinting at enticing danger. "Zydeco" is hectic, with fast, loose accordion (played this time by Andy Czerny), accompanied by yells, yodels, and lusty laughter. "Let Me Fall" is a yearning ballad, sung by Lavoie to the sensitive accompaniment of Benoit's guitar. "So let me fall, if I must fall," Lavoie begs. "I won't heed your warnings. I won't hear them.... There's no reason to miss this one chance, this perfect moment. Just let me fall."
"Reveil" brings back the brooding strings, hinting at innocence lost and wisdom hard-won. And finally, "Quidam" closes the story. Brisson-Jutras and Lavoie take turns singing to one another. "Your world is yours, not mine, Quidam. You may have touched the stars, but they weren't moved. And if you reach for me, I may not choose to hold your hand," she says. "I'm one, I'm two, I'm all of you.... An ordinary man, Quidam, I'm any man," he replies. Voices swell behind him to echo his words in Spanish and French: "The hand and the empty touch.... Quidam." The music is poignant, but triumphant. In retaining her individuality, the young girl realizes and becomes Quidam.
O is an extravaganza, a thirteen-course feast for the eyes and ears. It is entitled O for the sound and shape of the letter, for the exclamation, and for the French word for water (eau) -- and it is perhaps no coincidence that the title also evokes the notorious book of the same name. As always, the Cirque is out to push on our barriers, to unsettle us, and to lure us into enchantment. In O, the story is about the water of life itself, how it bears us up, surrounds us as we live on dry ground, overwhelms us, sustains us, and finally drowns us.
The music has a diverse, "world music" sound, underscoring the universality of life portrayed in the story. "Jeux d'eau" opens the show with fairy-like chiming keyboards and church bells, perhaps hinting at the dual mystery that opens our lives, before giving way to a lovely, swooning cello (Julie McInnes) that brings a lump to the throat just as it blends with the church bells. "Mer Noir" (night sea) starts with acapella voices in wordless harmony, then launches into a half-Renaissance/half-gypsy sound, with the same voices in tight, brisk harmony with a shawm (Elise Guay).
"Africa" begins with a flamenco-style guitar solo by McInnes, who is then joined by the simply splendid vocals of Toumany Kouyate. "Simcha" has a frantic, klezmer effect with rollicking saxaphone and tamborine, which morphs into calliope, then fades away into the faint cries of sea birds. "Desert," with its solemn, almost Holst-like strings, and "Terre aride," with low male voices droning in counterpoint to the earlier Gypsy chanting and eerie woodwinds, push urgently toward the end, the desperation for water, for more life. "O" resolves everything sweetly, with sadness and yet hope. Soft strings push against bodhran-style drumming, making space for the plaintive call of a crumhorn.
The music composed for each Cirque du Soleil show is inextricably linked to that show. The soundtracks to Alegria and O are far more interesting and meaningful to me than the one for Quidam, because each piece evokes visual memories, flashes of costuming, of dance, of brilliant acrobatics, of sad/merry clowns. However, if the listener hasn't seen any of the shows, he or she may not feel that extra layer of depth missing from Quidam. Oddly enough, on the other hand, because Quidam has such a "Broadway" sound, it's the album I would choose for a party, or for stand-alone listening. Without the entire Cirque, sets, performers, choreography and all, Alegria and O are (for me), only so much mood music, empty of the force that makes the Cirque du Soleil -- to use a hackneyed but in this case warranted word -- an experience.
All three CDs reviewed here can be purchased directly from the Cirque du Soleil via their Web site. The site also contains descriptions of all of their shows, ticket availability, and information on how to join the Cirque.