The Unknown girl of the Seine is an unidentified young woman whose supposed death mask became a popular fixture on the walls of bourgeois’ and artists’ homes around 1900. According to the story, she has been conveyed to the Paris’ morgue after drowning in the Seine. There a mortician, taken by her mysterious smile, made a plaster cast of her face, which has been reproduced and sold in Paris and across Europe. Nobody ever knew who she was. However, the story seems to be a complete fantasy, as experts declare impossible to cast such a plaster on a dead body.
Like Orpheus, The Unknown girl became a myth because she is perpetually reinvented by the people and by the artists. The first mention of the Unknown girl in literature occurs first in 1900, in an English novel, The Worshipper of the image by Richard Le Gallienne. We can find her in German in several works by Rilke, Herta Pauli, Odon Von Horvath, Claire Goll, Max Frisch, in Russian in Nabokov’s work, in French in Blanchot, Supervielle or Aragon’s novels. Man Ray also did a famous succession of photographs mixing different women faces and the Unknown girl’s mask. More than a modern European myth, the Unknown girl’s face is a mirror reflecting each societies’- past and contemporary – deep relationship toward omnipresent images of death and beauty.
“She is not a woman, she is the absence” (Aragon): that is why the writer and the artistic team didn’t see the point in making up a story revealing the identity of the Girl. What interested them is the very paradox she embodies: she dies as no one, then lives forever through her very death.
With a contemporary situation as a backdrop (nowadays a girl drowns in the river: paranoid suicide or unpunished aggression?), the libretto spread patterns belonging simultaneously to various aesthetics: the mask, the doubles, the water or the dream are as well baroque, romantic, symbolists or even expressionists.
“The things I imagine, like the things I dream, they seem so real”, sings the Girl. Wavering between dream and consciousness, between fantasy and thriller, the libretto questions the audience about the power of imagination, and its hold over reality. Not only personal imagination, but also collective imagination, and its ability to turn a simple decoration object (the mask) into a mythical character (l’Inconnue).
The part of the Man (a particular, almost meta-theatrical, character) is played by an actor, and the Unknown Girl is a soprano. Spoken language has been part of the opera tradition through ages, in many ways as recitatives, ballad operas, Singspiel, or Sprechgesang. The coexistence of spoken language and singing is a very important part of the author and composer’s vision. The spoken language and singing will be treated differently throughout the opera – sometimes mixed, juxtaposed or independent.
The musical ensemble for this opera is clarinet, violin, cello, contrabass and (a special function for the) trombone. The quartet of clarinet, violin, cello and contrabass has been chosen for various reasons. First of all, the clarinet gives the opportunity to mix extremely well with the string instruments. Also the use of different types of clarinets can give the possibility to make small duos of for example violin-clarinet or cello-bass clarinet. The trombone player will echo the relation between sung and spoken text, having different connections and relations to the instrumental quartet.
This quartet can sound as a little chamber orchestra, because the clarinet is an extremely flexible instrument and with the presence of high, “middle” and low strings, you receive a kind of reduced orchestral feeling with a very limited number of musicians.
During their LAB in Snape Maltings, composer Frederik Neyrinck and writer Sabryna Pierre were mentored Stephen Plaice as they translated the libretto into English. This was an important part of the development process as, ultimately, icon was performed in English throughout its international tour.
Read more about the creation process on the ENOA Website