Visse, Dominique


Dispute

Benoît Mernier - La Dispute

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Patrick Davin, Karl-Ernst Herrmann, Ursel Herrmann, Stéphane Degout, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Julie Mathevet, Albane Carrère, Cyrille Dubois, Guillaume Andrieux, Dominique Visse, Katelijne Verbeke | La Monnaie - Internet Streaming, March 2013

For his second opera the Belgian composer Benoît Mernier set about trying to find a text that would work with that particular quality of opera that is able to touch on mythological and universal subjects and make them vital and human. The subject of La Dispute, based on an eighteenth century drama by Marivaux has a theoretical, experimental edge as well as a human drama at its centre which makes it a perfect fit for Mernier’s intentions. It’s one consequently that the composer scores with precision and sensitivity, even if neither he nor the production entirely succeeds in bringing it to life.

It’s somewhat appropriate however that Marivaux’s text, written in 1744, is treated musically in Mernier’s La Dispute not entirely unlike a French Baroque opera. At the outset, in the first dispute, you have Cupid and Amour defending their respective positions of influence over the human heart, Cupid advocating liberty and freedom of choice, Amour seeing him/herself as the protector of romance and fidelity. Who is to blame then when the rot sets in, as it seems to be doing in another dispute that is taking place in the mortal world between the Prince and Hermiane? Having been caught dallying with another woman at a party, the couple’s argument takes a theoretical turn as they debate whether it is the man or the woman who is ultimately responsible for infidelity.

To answer that question, the Prince says, you would need to go back to the beginning of time to the first man and woman, which of course is impossible. Enter Cupid and Amour, disguised as Mesrou and Carise, who are just as interested in the resolution of this question. It just so happens that they have four young people, two of each sex, brought up in isolation with no outside influences and completely unaware of each other. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how these perfect subjects interact with each other? Wouldn’t an experiment undertaken under these strict laboratory conditions provide some insight into the matter being disputed?

What develops does indeed follow the lines of a dispassionate scientific experiment and, unfortunately, that seems to apply to the music and the opera as a whole. Like George Benjamin’s recent Written on Skin, one wonders whether it is even possible now to really engage with operatic characters in modern opera or whether there isn’t necessarily always going to have to be some kind of detached observation and commentary. It’s all a little too coldly calculated here in La Dispute which never really seems to come to life for all the accuracy of the observations. The conflicts of Amour and Cupid and the Prince and Hermiane are really just a framework then, one that has been filled out by the librettists Ursel Herrmann and Joël Lauwers from other Marivaux texts, while the main part of the work indeed focuses on the lab experiment of the two young couples who are gradually revealed to each other.

This experiment takes place under observation within a brilliantly designed set by Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann, a neon lit cube framework within a Garden of Eden-like environment cut off from the real world. First we meet Églé, a young woman enchanted by her own reflection in a stream, who finds her belief in her own beauty validated when she is introduced to the adoring Azor. The young couple, who have never seen anyone other than Mesrou and Carise, are inevitably totally enraptured with the discovery of each other. Until, that is, they become aware of another young couple, Adine and Mesrin. Then, as they become less certain of their own uniqueness and start to develop insecurities, things begin to get complicated.

Principally, the answer to the question of ‘la dispute’ would appear to be clear enough from how things develop. The insecurities initially arise when the two women, Églé and Andrine, meet each other. It’s not a pretty sight. Jealousy arises out of the thought that someone might regard the other as more beautiful than themselves and that person becomes a threat. The only way to prove one’s superiority it seems is to win over the other’s lover, and since they are merely men that is not a difficult object to achieve. This might seem a rather slight if not entirely inaccurate observation, but it ought to be developed further and on a less theoretical level by the various other levels of the dispute. There is a little more edge and ambiguity introduced through the human presence of the Prince and Hermiane, but not to any real conclusive end. But perhaps a true conclusion ought not to be reached other than making the observation that, ultimately, human feelings cannot entirely be understood or even trusted.

When you are getting into such matters in opera, this is where the music should say more than the text, but unfortunately - beautiful though it is - Benoît Mernier’s score doesn’t reveal any great depths to these academic characters. There’s something academic about the score also, which accompanies the situations perfectly, picking at the characters’ hesitant first steps, showing developing emotional awareness and curiosity, extending out into more complex personality traits as the characters interact through some marvellously written duets, but little of it seems to hint at anything more than is already apparent in the text and the dramatic situations alone. The musical language inevitably leans towards Debussy, but without the mystery and haunting impressionism.

If it doesn’t entirely come to life then or reveal any great depths, the qualities of the singing, the production and indeed the work itself are still clearly apparent. Stéphane Degout and Stéphanie d’Oustrac are two of the finest talents in French opera and sing beautifully here, but they aren’t really given a lot to work with in characters as insubstantial as the Prince and Hermiane. There’s rather more of a challenge in the roles of the young couples, and Julie Mathevet and Cyrille Dubois stand out as Églé and Azor, but there is fine work and good interaction also with Albane Carrère’s Adine and Guillaume Andrieux’s Mesrin. Dominique Visse throws himself fully into another ambiguous cross-dressing role as Amour/Carise with verve and personality, and is matched in this by Katelijne Verbeke’s Cupid/Mesrou.

The clarity of the diction and the purity of the singing voices are supported by a meticulously arranged score that is perfectly balanced between spoken accompanied dialogue, arioso singing, duets and purely musical interludes in a way that allows each of the singers and their dramatic expression to stand clear and shine. The Hermann’s sets, lighting and direction also work to enhance every aspect of the dramatic text, everything coming together to provide a superb spectacle and beautiful accompaniment for an interesting work that nonetheless never amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

La Monnaie/De Munt’s production of La Dispute was broadcast on the internet via their web streaming service, the performance recorded on the 10th and 13th February 2013. It’s available for viewing until 17th April 2013. Subtitles are in French, Dutch and German only. The next broadcast from La Monnaie is Pelléas et Mélisande, which will be made available for viewing for three weeks from 4th May 2013.

DavidMarc-Antoine Charpentier - David et Jonathas

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | William Christie, Les Arts Florissantes, Andreas Homoki, Pascal Charbonneau, Ana Quintans, Neal Davies, Frédéric Caton, Krešimir Špicer, Dominique Visse, Pierre Bessière | Aix-en-Provence - 11 July 2012

Marc-Antoine Charpentier worked for many years in the shadow of the officially appointed court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and it seems he has remained in his shadow ever since, largely overlooked even as French Baroque music is being rediscovered in modern times, favouring Lully and his successor Rameau over Charpentier and Campra. There may be genuine musicological reasons for this choice, but judging by this rare performance of Charpentier’s David et Jonathas for the 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival - the first staged performance of the work in over 300 years - the problem seems to lie with the difficulty of adapting this kind of work for a modern stage, since musically it is rather something of a delight.

First performed in 1688, a year after the death of Lully, David et Jonathas, a “Biblical tragedy in five acts with a prologue” is based on the friendship between David - slayer of Goliath - and Jonathas, the son of King Saul. The difficulty with adapting this work to a stage production is similar to the nature of attempting to stage Handel’s religious oratorios, the libretto by Père François de Paule Bretonneau in this case making it somewhat difficult to grasp a clear dramatic or narrative thread. Essentially however, the main thrust of the work is relatively straightforward, dealing with Saul’s growing mistrust of the shepherd boy David, who he has initially welcomed into his company. David is shown to be a popular hero, the people celebrating his successes in battle, but Saul suspects that he may be using his popularity and his friendship with his son Jonathas as a means to overthrow his rule and replace him as king of Israel.

Another reason why the work may be difficult to follow was that it was originally written to be performed as musical interludes inserted into a performance of the theatrical drama Saul. The Aix production does its best to create some dramatic situations out of this Biblical story, adding flashback scenes during what would have been musical ballet sequences that fill out the background of the historical conflicts, building up the childhoods of David and Jonathas and including other significant incidents such as the death of Saul’s wife, all of which seems to have an impact on destabilising the king’s mind, leading to more wars and a tragic outcome. The Aix production also notionally sets this staging of the opera during the Palestinian Civil War and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, which may or may not be necessary as a meaningful parallel for the audience - but other than perhaps influencing the costume design, in reality there’s little direct reference made to the origins of the modern political conflict in the region.

The stage design rather places the action within a box of bare wood panelling, sparsely decorated with nothing more than wooden chairs and a long table, giving the impression more of a Quaker community room, or even occasionally looking like something out of a Western. Cleverly designed (I still can’t work out quite how they manage it), the walls and ceilings move to compress the space, open it out or split it into several rooms, blocking and boxing in to create a dramatic focus and tension to the singing. It’s hardly necessary, since the singing itself is more than capable of finding the right dramatic tone, and if anything the staging tends to over-emphasise it and place it at odds with the often delicate elegance of Charpentier’s beautiful musical arrangements and joyous choruses.

More often it’s simply trying to make the opera visually more interesting and dramatic than it might otherwise be. The production sparks into life during those magnificent choral arrangements, celebrating David’s successes in battle, and there are many of those. It’s less successful in providing psychological justification - and even suggestion of sexual attraction in the closeness of the relationship between the two men (notwithstanding the role of Jonathas being performed by a female singer). If the libretto and the flashback scenes don’t really bring this out sufficiently, it is however made impressively real and on occasion genuinely touching through Charpentier’s beautiful use of melody and his use of woodwind instruments - evocatively brought out by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants (who incidentally, take their name from a Charpentier opera) - and through the fine singing performances.

As David, Pascal Charbonneau has a powerful presence and voice, wonderfully expressive in a way that gives genuine character to the role, but it does tend to sound slightly constricted and nasal on those more stretched emotional sections - and this is a tragedy where the despairing cry of ‘Hélas!’ features heavily. I don’t think the actual acoustic of the boxed stage helps though. Elsewhere the singing and dramatic performances were excellent, even if the true quality of Ana Quintans singing only really came through in the very moving final act death scene of Jonathas. Neal Davies sang Saul with force and passion, but the stage direction and imagery used to convey his descent into paranoia suspicion and grief wasn’t always convincing. Still, this is clearly an extremely difficult work to adapt dramatically to the modern stage, but more than worthwhile for the opportunity of seeing this rarity from a neglected composer given full dramatic consideration and performed so well.

This performance of David et Jonathas was recorded at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on 11th July 2012 and viewed via internet streaming. It is currently still available to view on the ARTE WebLive web site or via the ArtsFlo Media site. Some region restrictions might apply.

PoppeaClaudio Monteverdi - L’incoronazione di Poppea

Gran Theatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2009 | Harry Bicket, David Alden, Miah Persson, Sarah Connolly, Jordi Domenèch, Franz-Josef Selig, Maite Beaumont, Ruth Rosique, Dominique Visse, Guy de Mey, William Berger, Judith van Wanroij, Francisco Vas, Josep Miquel Ramón, Marisa Martins, Olatz Saitua | Opus Arte

As if it’s not enough to be attributed with inventing opera itself – the first through-composed work being L’Orfeo in 1607 – Monteverdi advanced the artform even further with his last work, L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), written at the age of 76. Previously operas were based only on classic mythological subjects – opera being a 17th century attempt to return to the ideals of Ancient Greek drama, which was then believed to have had a musical form – but, having moved into public theatres, and no longer a diversion for royalty and nobility, L’incoronazione di Poppea would be the first opera to deal with a historical subject and real people. The composer (there is still uncertainty about the authorship of the work, some believing that parts of the work at least may have been written by one of Monteverdi’s students) takes full advantage of this fact, revelling in the possibilities of extending the qualities associated with the musical-dramatic form to show less elevated and more down-to-earth human behaviour.

Directing Monteverdi’s final opera for the Liceu in Barcelona in 2009, David Alden emphasises this aspect in his colourful, modernised production (first produced in Munich in 1997) which certainly takes liberties with the characters and the setting to draw out the bawdiness and humour that is undoubtedly a part of the work, while Harry Bicket’s sensitive conducting of the Liceu’s Baroque orchestra finds the delicacy and sensitivity that it also part of the make-up of the human historical figures caught up in the drama of Nero’s reign in Rome around AD72. It’s a tricky proposition not only to achieve that magnificent balance, but also to find a way to make a 350 year-old work as vital and meaningful to a modern audience as it would have been to its original intended public. There’s no one right way to this, but it helps if you can achieve some balance between the traditional and the modern that captures the spirit of the work.

For Monteverdi, the Prologue to the opera sets out this clash between classicism and modernity in his new approach to representing historical drama in opera, where the typically allegorical figures of Virtue and Fortune battle it out for supremacy only to concede that it’s Love that holds greater sway in human affairs. In this story of revenge, infidelity, murder, lies and deceit, Virtue really doesn’t get a look in. Within this framework, away from the classical allusions to gods and mythological figures, Monteverdi finds a whole new wealth of emotions and personalities – most of them not entirely noble or honourable – to be explored through his innovative musical approach to continuo instrumentation, recitative and arioso. Busenello’s libretto also revels in the irreverence of the satire of these historical figures and the scandalous behaviour depicted, and, in its own way, Alden’s production taps into this for its rich vein of humour and presents it in a way which may be more meaningful to a modern audience.

Poppea

If that approach at times resembles that of a Carry On film, that’s perhaps not as inappropriate as it sounds for this particular work. There is a great deal of sauciness in how Monteverdi and Busenello treat the scandalous behaviour of Nero’s infidelities and Poppea’s scheming. There is real passion in the seductive lines in which Nero and the music describe the hold that Poppea has over him, and there is some suggestiveness and homoeroticism in Nero and Lucan’s drunken celebration at having overthrown the stabilising influence of Seneca, but the activities of the Emperor and his affair with Poppea seems to promote a general licentiousness and scheming elsewhere among their associates. Brought together in this way, if Drusilla were to ask Ottone “Is that an axe in your trousers or are you just pleased to see me?”, or Nero to exclaim, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in f’ me!”, it wouldn’t be any more out of place than what is actually suggested there in the music and the libretto itself.

That’s essentially how Alden approaches this aspect of the work, using incongruity to play up the humour in the situation. Hence we have Roman soldiers lolling about on a red leather sofa-bed, much play on the cross-dressing and travesti roles (Nero is usually played by a female soprano, as it is here, but it can be done with a tenor), and obvious visual jokes such as the page Valletto being dressed as an old-fashioned hotel pageboy from 1930s movies, and the Nurse dressed in – yes, you guessed it – a medical uniform. The production creates a recognisable environment then for the modern viewer to relate to, one that is attractively designed with plenty of variety in the arrangements, beautifully lit and coloured, witty, ironic and referential without being overly-clever, keeping the spirit of that aspect of the work intact.

There is however much more to L’incoronazione di Poppea than that and the directorial approach is not quite so successful when it comes to approaching the more lyrical qualities of the work. This is best demonstrated by Seneca’s death scene, which should be one of the most moving moments in the whole opera, but it fails to strike the right tone here. Musically, it’s perfect. Harry Bicket’s arrangement and Franz-Josef Selig’s bass have the right measure of gravity, nobility and tragedy, but the staging and the curiously dressed pupils of the philosopher work against the deeper implications that this event is to have on the subsequent course of events. Much of the balance in the production is left then to Bicket and the Baroque orchestra of the Liceu to pick up and, indeed, they do so brilliantly. It’s a sparser arrangement that doesn’t have the same rhythmic verve as the 1993 René Jacobs recording (on Arthaus DVD) that I am familiar with, but every note of the sparingly used chitarrone and harpsichord continuo is beautifully weighed and balanced, all the more to highlight the flute, harp and other affetto instrumentation that gives colour to the characters and emotions through their arias.

Poppea

The emotion and verve of the singing and acting performances also makes up for the slight lack of dynamic in the staging. Miah Persson is terrific as Poppea – much more animated and lyrical here than in anything else I’ve heard her sing (Britten and Stravinsky) – and Sarah Connolly is a fine impassioned Nero, not essentially evil, but in thrall to his passions and power. Jordi Domenèch is a little light as the countertenor Ottone, but the variety of his tone balances the other singers well. Maite Beaumont is outstanding as Ottavia and Franz-Josef Selig, as mentioned earlier, suitably dignified as Seneca. The real highlight of this production however is Dominique Visse, who is also the Nutrice in the above mentioned René Jacobs version, but here he takes on the contralto roles of the Nurse and Arnalta, fully entering into the spirit of Alden’s production. It’s the variety of singing parts that is one of the great qualities of L’incoronazione di Poppea and the casting here is superbly balanced in this respect.

Just as important, in this context, is the quality of the recording, and this release is absolutely stunning to look at and listen to in High Definition. There is a beautiful clarity to the singing and the instrumentation with a wonderful sense of ambience. This is sheer perfection as far as technical specifications go and, as far as this production is concerned, it brings out all the qualities of an extraordinary work of early opera. Extras on the DVD and Blu-ray consist only of a Cast Gallery and a narrated Synopsis, while an essay in the booklet takes a closer look at aspects of David Alden’s production. The subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Catalan.