The Magazine

Citizen of Geneva

The hometown tribute to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Dec 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 15 • By PAULA DEITZ
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With printmaking at its height, the selection emphasizes how fine lines and crosshatching melded into the atmospheric effects that Canaletto achieved masterfully in his several fantasy views of romantic ruins. Geneva figures in Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours’s ideal view of the city in brown ink, imagining a classical Acropolis and a plan for Rousseau’s tomb. And, finally, Jean-Antoine Linck’s several views of Mont Blanc, like an ice castle against a pale blue sky, remind me how life in Geneva is at its best on a clear day, when those peaks come into view. 

Also to mark the tercentenary, the city of Geneva and its Grand Théâtre commissioned the opera JJR (Citoyen de Genève) by the French composer Philippe Fénelon, with a libretto by the British playwright Ian Burton.  Performances took place in Geneva’s popular second opera house—a former Beaux Arts water-power station on the Rhône River which was transformed when the Grand Théâtre was under renovation in 1998. Inspired by Rousseau’s one-act opera, The Village Soothsayer (itself a pastiche from Baroque operas with his own libretto), JJR was billed as a philosophical divertissement in seven scenes with an eighth a musical vaudeville. 

It was a very entertaining romp through Rousseau’s life and ideas, intermingling characters from both his real and fictional worlds. With the Baroque sounds of the harpsichord alternating with a piano in the orchestra, Fénelon, like Rousseau, borrowed familiar strains—from Bononcini, Scarlatti, Mendelssohn, Messiaen (his former teacher), and even a Swiss folk melody—along with his own distinctive contemporary music, all harmoniously conducted by Jean Deroyer. 

Rousseau, at age 66 (a tenor), first appears in the aisles returning from a botanical expedition and is soon joined onstage by his two younger selves, at 22 (a baritone) and at 12 (a countertenor), all dressed in grey as befits their ages. The blend of their arias together was quite affecting, and they divided to play each appropriate scene, with the elder Rousseau serving as a narrator throughout.

With a mother who died shortly after giving birth to him and a watchmaker father who ultimately abandoned him, Rousseau sets out on his own into adventurous times of political intrigues and romantic encounters. Voltaire, his nemesis, makes an appearance, as does Diderot, who, from his prison cell, guides Rousseau to confirm his vocation as a writer. 

As this pageant unfurls across time with elaborate period costumes but minimal sets, it builds to a scene with the pastoral lovers from Rousseau’s own opera. Voices in the epilogue repeat the writer’s familiar declarations—“Man is born free but everywhere lives in chains” (The Social Contract)—but in the last moments, Rousseau reverts to his study of nature and “plants that have been scattered profusely across the earth like the stars in the sky.”

Finally, in a program called “La Faute à Rousseau” (“Blame It on Rousseau”), a collaborative of local film groups invited 55 Swiss and international filmmakers to demonstrate Rousseau’s life and philosophical works in four-minute fictional documentaries to show how relevant his ideas are to contemporary life. Selections of these have been playing on monitors all over the city, and I selected one on the Ile Rousseau, situated at the confluence of Lake Geneva and the Rhône River. With its semicircle of poplars, this island suggests the setting of the writer’s original tomb in 1778 on a lake island in the Romantic landscape garden Ermenonville in France, where Rousseau stayed at the end of his life under the patronage of the marquis René-Louis de Girardin. The monitor was placed next to his statue, seated with pen in hand and “Citoyen de Genève” incised into the base, the honorific he once lost but finally regained. 

In one film, “Vacant Lot” by Bruno Cellier, two brothers play until the elder begins taunting the younger, who walks away ignoring the shouts until finally he turns and knocks his brother to the ground so hard he thinks he has killed him. When the elder brother finally opens his eyes, the two embrace heartily. The screen then showed the passage from the “Fourth Walk” in Rousseau’s posthumous work Reveries of a Solitary Walker, in which he describes a comparable boyhood incident on Geneva’s Plainpalais—at the time, still an open plain—where Rousseau was struck in the head by another boy and lay bleeding: “He flung himself on to me, took me in his arms, and hugged me tightly, weeping.” 

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