Not quite Les Misérables
Victor Hugo is a towering figure in French literature whose Les Misérables was an immediate crowd pleaser - and remains so this day. A social reformer, he got caught up in the tumultuous politics of 19th century France and spent many years in exile abroad.
Already in Belgium to escape the Paris Commune, Hugo argued in a Brussels newspaper that even these far-left socialists should be treated with compassion. It was this support for refugees – strikingly topical - that forced him out of Brussels and found him lodging in Vianden.
The house where Hugo stayed in this Ardennes town is now a museum. During a sojourn of a little more than two months - from 8 June to 22 August 1871 - Hugo wrote the poem “À Vianden”, which compares the rural idyll he found himself in with the atrocities committed by and against the Paris Commune.
Delivering just one poem was nothing out of the ordinary for this prolific writer, but the fact that he did so in Luxembourg makes it special here. It also happened 150 years ago. And so Trio Cénacle, a group of classical musicians, has pulled together a project on the illustrious artist, including a recital called Quo Vadis Europa, which premiered at the Mierscher Kulturhaus last week.
The piece combines poetry, classical music, film and performing arts. It is the brainchild of Luxembourg pianist Michèle Kerschenmeyer, who makes up the trio with German soprano Evelyn Czesla and Dutch bass-baritone, Nico Wouterse. They perform together with comedian Simon Pitt, who plays the role of Hugo, reading his letters, speeches and prose.
Without doubt, the performance challenges the viewer to think of Hugo as more than a writer, making clear he was also a philosopher, a human rights advocate, a poet, an artist. And as if that’s not enough, Trio Cénacle also wants to expose Hugo’s artistic and political visions in light of present day Europe.
So, does it work? One thing the piece does well is that it reminds us that Hugo had a lot to say – perhaps sometimes too much, even if he was adept at writing rousing speeches. Without the relief the singers and the pianist offer, the evening would be merely a recital of Hugo’s words. There’s barely a breath for the audience to reflect on what is said. And while the artists are no doubt absorbed with Hugo, and have come to know his work intimately, the same may not be true for the audience and they may find it hard to appreciate the musical journey without everything there is to know about Hugo’s life.
A modern poet would no doubt lead a less exciting life than Hugo’s. In 1849, he outlined his vision for a unified Europe in Paris, but it took more than a century – and three wars, with millions dead - for that to become a reality. Hugo at the time was a member of the National Assembly in Paris, where he called for an end to capital punishment, supported universal suffrage and free education for all children. He first went into exile after Napoleon III seized power in 1851, returned to office for the Third Republic, then left again when Paris Commune started its rule in 1871. It took him 17 years to write Les Misérables – a masterpiece on social misery and injustice – mostly in exile on the island of Guernsey. It was an immediate hit even if it did not gain praise from contemporary writers such as Flaubert and Baudelaire.
The recital certainly manages to spark interest in Victor Hugo, the man of many talents. But to link his work to the growing pains of modern European unification is contrived - and unsuccessful.
Quo Vadis Europa can be seen on 18 and 19 November at the Théâtre National de Luxembourg, and on 16 November at the Luxembourg Conservatory as part of a school performance. It will be performed on 28 April 2022 at Cube521 in Marnach, with more performances planned for that year.
You can watch a trailer (in French) of the film that accompanies the recital below.