La Monnaie/De Munt


Pelleas

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Ludovic Morlot, Pierre Audi, Anish Kapoor, Stéphane Degout, Monica Bacelli, Dietrich Henschel, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Frode Olsen, Patrick Bolleire, Alexandre Duhamel, Valérie Gabail | La Monnaie Internet Streaming, April 2013

There are many ways to approach a work as mysterious, suggestive and as unique as Pelléas et Mélisande, and the stage production in particular is one that is open to free and imaginative interpretation. The opera is already symbolist and dreamlike in its origin and nature, so the question of whether to make a stage production traditional or modernist isn’t so much the issue. For the stage director, the challenge rather is whether to impose some sense of reading onto it or to give free rein to the work’s beautiful abstraction.

Ideally perhaps a production should have a balance of both elements in order to match Debussy’s intention to create “a mysterious correspondence between Nature and the Imagination” in his composition of the music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play. With this in mind, La Monnaie’s Pelléas et Mélisande would seem to be well-placed to provide both elements with Pierre Audi’s direction giving the work a meaningful context connected to human Nature, while the set designs by Anish Kapoor bring that other essential ingredient of abstraction and Imagination. The correspondence between them is more difficult to define, but that’s perhaps where Debussy’s music lies.

Owing something to Henry Moore’s huge curved sculptures, the centrepiece of Kapoor’s all-purpose set design is both abstract and organic in design, a large scooped-out object supported by steel girders with a staircase and a platform. From some angles it resembles or suggests an ear, an eye or a womb - all of which can be seen as relevant symbols for this work - which through rotation presents different aspects that represent a cavern, a castle, a tower or an immovable rock. It’s sufficiently abstract then to match the nature of the work that wouldn’t be as well-served by a more literal depiction of those objects.

Audi’s direction works effectively around this strong, resonant central image, requiring almost nothing else in the way of props. He resorts to a little bit of abstraction and symbolism also - it would be hard not to with the suggestiveness of this work - particularly with regard to the figure of Mélisande. In fact, everything in the production seems to be based on or seen in relation to Mélisande. From the moment she is discovered by Golaud, an open wound on her stomach can be seen through her dress, is caressed later by Pelléas and becomes fully vivid and bloody at her death scene. There’s certainly a case that Mélisande is at the heart of the work. All the other characters are defined by their relationship with her, and Mélisande herself becomes an object that is defined by how others see her.

This could perhaps explain why - as absurd as it might seem particularly when her hair plays such a symbolic element in the drama - that Mélisande here is also actually bald for the most part. When she leans down from the tower then in the opera’s critical scene, it’s not her hair that Pelléas caresses, but a silk scarf. Emphasising a symbol though its absence seems a strange thing to do, but it’s the meaning rather than the object that is important, and the impact and relevance of the scene here is scarcely lessened. What counts more than the pleasure of Pelléas is the response of Golaud since this is to have a much more profound impact on Mélisande, and Golaud is everywhere in this production, watching and seeing but not understanding, or not wishing to understand.

Audi’s direction and Kapoor’s abstract symbolism don’t perhaps fully connect to bring any new resonance out of this Pelléas et Mélisande, but Debussy’s impressionistic score is always suggestive and responds well to new ideas and new approaches. Ludovic Morlot, the new music director at La Monnaie, is alert to the lyricism of the work but he also brings out its expressiveness. This is not an entirely floating dreamlike account of the score, but one that seeks to indeed assert the music’s position as the intermediary between Nature and the Imagination.

It certainly brought out a fine performance from Stéphane Degout as Pelléas. With a lovely soft lyrical baritone and clear French diction that is alive to the rhythms of Debussy’s conversational writing for the voice, Degout is currently one of the best interpreters of this role. This is the third time I’ve seen him sing Pelléas and he brings a new deeper resonance and expressiveness to the role here. Monica Bacelli’s sings a fine Mélisande, with perfect timing, good French diction and a delivery that complements Degout well, if not with the same distinction. In a production that had an alternative cast, there were good performances also here from Dietrich Henschel as Golaud, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo as Géneviève and Frode Olsen as Arkel, with Valérie Gabail a bright Yniold.

This recording of La Monnaie’s production of Pelléas et Mélisande was made on the 17th and 19th of April 2013 and broadcast via their free web streaming service from 4th to 24th May. Subtitles are available in Dutch and French only. The final web broadcast of La Monnaie’s 2012-13 season, a production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte by the Oscar-winning Austrian film director Michael Haneke (Amour), will be available for free viewing for three weeks from 26th June.

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.

Lucrezia

Gaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Julian Reynolds, Guy Joosten, Paul Gay, Elena Moşuc, Charles Castronovo, Silvia Tro Santafé, Roberto Covatta, Tijl Faveyts, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Jean Teitgen, Alexander Kravets, Justin Hopkins, Stefan Cifolelli, Alain-Pierre Wingelinckx | La Monnaie - Internet Streaming, February 2013

La Monnaie’s production of Lucrezia Borgia maintains a consistency of style and quality of interpretation that has been evident in all their works broadcast this season via their internet streaming service. Like La Traviata, Lulu and Manon Lescaut, it’s not without a certain amount of controversy either. Modern, boldly coloured and neon-lit, with a stage set that is far from conventional in concept and configuration, much less traditional in period in design, it was however another bold vision where the spectacle was rivalled by the interpretation of the music and excellent singing from an intriguing cast line-up.

It’s well established that the plot and characterisation of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia are not the most convincing. The work is filled with inconsistencies, improbabilities and weak characterisation. Donizetti’s music too, if we’re honest, has its moments but there’s an awful lot of plodding conventionality in the scoring. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense or at least it’s expecting a bit much for the audience to sympathise with the idea that there’s a loving mother beneath Lucrezia’s notoriety as a monstrous killer who even in the opera commits a number of atrocities that include the inadvertent murder of her own son. The nature of her love for Gennaro is itself somewhat dubious and borderline incestuous. Gennaro’s actions and motivations and love unfortunately are no more credible. And that’s to say nothing of the plot involving poisoned wines and antidote plot twists.

The complications of the characterisation and the melodrama in Lucrezia Borgia do however provide a wealth of material that can be worked effectively by a strong cast of real personality, particularly if they have strong direction. It’s a work that builds up scene upon scene towards a magnificent dramatic finale in the way that only Donizetti or Rossini can do, if the production has singers of sufficient stature to pull it off, particularly in the title role. La Monnaie’s production benefits in this respect from a strong committed central performance by Elena Moşuc, who not only hits all those extraordinarily difficult high notes but she does so with a soft unforced expressiveness and true dramatic conviction.

As Gennaro, Charles Castronovo’s lovely rounded lyric tenor is more than capable of the necessary range and power, but he’s a little declamatory and unable to really bring anything out of the role and the complicated (badly-written) relationship with Lucrezia. There’s a suggestion that the director has to some extent modelled this Gennaro on Donizetti himself, but I’m not sure this is established entirely successfully. The adventurous and successful casting of the two leads extends to the other roles. Paul Gay’s lighter bass-baritone is revealed as being much better suited to the bel canto of Don Alfonso than the boom of Grand Opéra, while Silvia Tro Santafé makes a good impression as Orsini.

It’s also been well established that a “realistic” period setting isn’t necessarily going to make Lucrezia Borgia any more convincing. It’s not a historical drama nor is it a movie or a documentary. Like any operatic work from this period, the emotions expressed principally through the singing - love, anger, betrayal and revenge - are far more important than the historical characters or the period. Guy Joosten’s setting of the opera, with sets by Johannes Leiacker, looks like a circus or even a nightclub with a catwalk leading down from a curtained entrance that has Borgia written up in neon-lights. Large menacing figures representing aspects of Lucrezia (Maternity, Death, Evil, Nobility) loom over the circular stage of the Cirque Royal, with the orchestra located to the right hand side at the back. There’s evidently some conceptual layers added here, but the drama itself is nonetheless played out within this according the intentions of the libretto. More or less.

There are some liberties taken then in the stage production, but no more than Donizetti and Felice Romano’s working of Victor Hugo’s fictional drama and only as much as is necessary to make the notoriously difficult and somewhat static dramatic staging for this opera work. This was no stand-and-deliver performance and at the very least it was visually impressive in its colourful stylisations, with figures wearing masks and costumes - pigs, clowns, ‘Clockwork Orange‘ droogs, topless ladies in saucy nun costumes - that not only fit with the Venetian Carnival revelry in Lucrezia Borgia, they also give a sense of characterisation and personality that is hard to find in the work itself. The success of the production was assured by the superb playing of the La Monnaie symphony orchestra and a lively, intense and invigorating interpretation of the score by conductor Julian Reynolds.

La Monnaie/De Munt’s production of Lucrezia Borgia was broadcast on the internet via their internet streaming service, the performance recorded on the 23rd and 26th February 2013. The next broadcast of their exceptional season is the world premiere of a new work by Benoît Mernier, La Dispute.

Manon LescautGiacomo Puccini - Manon Lescaut

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Carlo Rizzi, Mariuz Treliński, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brandon Jovanovich, Giovanni Furlanetto, Aris Argiris, Julien Dran, Alexander Kravets, Guillaume Antoine, Camille Merckx, Amalia Avilán, Anne-Fleur Inizian, Audrey Kessedjian, Julie Mossay | La Monnaie Internet Streaming, January 2013

The story is the same one that opera-goers will be more familiar with from Massenet’s Manon (1884), but former filmmaker Mariuz Treliński’s modern-day updating of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893) transports it into a world that will be more familiar with cinema-goers who have seen the David Lynch films ‘Blue Velvet‘ and ‘Lost Highway‘. Following on the heels of La Monnaie’s similarly hard-hitting and highly acclaimed modern takes on the sordid reality of two other opera heroines who are debased by a hypocritical and exploitative patriarchal society - Lulu and Violetta - Manon Lescaut has two very hard acts to follow. If inevitably it can’t touch those outstanding productions, the fault is less to do with the casting or the direction than the fact that Puccini’s early work - and his first real opera success - falls well short of Berg’s and Verdi’s masterpieces.

As elaborately deconstructed and as beautifully designed as it may be - Boris Kudlicka’s sets matching and complementing the bright, clean, colourful neon-lit modernist productions we’ve come to associate with La Monnaie of late (La Traviata, Lulu, Rusalka) - Mariuz Treliński isn’t able to make quite as much of an impression on Manon Lescaut, and doesn’t find a method that gives any new meaning or new life to the work. It’s not for want of trying, for a lack of ideas or for any shortcomings in the material. The Abbé Prevost’s scandalous novel, banned on publication in 1731, provides plenty of scandal, adventure and colourful locations in its lurid melodrama, and these are factors that can’t help but be enhanced to a considerable degree when the strange worlds of the filmmakers David Lynch and Luis Buñuel are brought into the mix.

Much of the story in this production then takes place in a railway station, or is framed by an opening and closing in a railway station with elements of it interjecting at certain points - a payphone, a bench of waiting room chairs, a subway map and timetable - in a way suggests that it might even be all taking place in the head of Des Grieux, who lies sleeping at the opening here. Trains race past through the underground station to strobing light and a digital station clock marks the passing of time, effects representing the place where the story starts and the beginning of what turns out to be a long journey for Des Grieux. He immediately falls in love with Manon at first sight, rescuing her from a fate in a convent, or worse, left in the hands of a lecherous rich old man (Geronte de Ravoir based rather disturbingly on Frank Booth as played by Dennis Hopper with oxygen mask in ‘Blue Velvet‘). It’s an encounter and an infatuation that, for better or worse, determines the direction of the rest of his life.

Puccini’s version of the Manon story - the libretto worked on by numerous uncredited writers including Ruggero Leoncavallo and Luigi Illica - differs only in minor respects that one might consider regrettable only if familiar with the Massenet version. The modest little table that provides such poignancy in Massenet’s opera is only referred to in passing here, since Puccini’s version excises the period of Des Grieux and Manon’s humble little sojourn in Paris, saving Manon’s arrest and deportation to America for her attempt to leave Geronte’s apartment with her jewels and luxury goods when Des Grieux reappears in her life. In Puccini’s version, Manon doesn’t die in Le Harve while waiting for the prison ship, but is transported to America, and Des Grieux with her, where she succumbs to a horrible death, dying of thirst in the desert outside New Orleans. In Treliński’s production, obviously, they never physically leave the train station.

Puccini makes this version very much his own, finding in it material, isolated situations at different time periods and a structure that he would put to work in a much more satisfactory manner and with considerably more artistry in La Bohème. Musically however, although it does have some lyrical and heartfelt moments, Manon Lescaut is a much weaker work, the score almost insipid, with few melodies, arrangements or character definition that can compare to Puccini’s later work. It’s unfortunate that the composer, at this stage in his career, isn’t musically up to the material, because otherwise all the elements for the melodrama of the tragic Puccini heroine are all in place. That suits Mariuz Treliński, who is able to work with characters that are less one-dimensional than in the Massenet version. His modern, fractured narrative construction recognises Manon’s position as a commodity whose vanity and materialism - much like Lulu - plays a part in her fate or at least in terms of how men are able to exploit her weaknesses. To fit with his concept however, the director imposes more emphasis on Manon as an elusive movie “femme fatale”, an “Obscure Object of Desire” to fire the passions of unwary men.

Manon Lescaut is certainly a lesser Puccini work, but it’s possible to imagine that it could be made to work in the right setting and with the right singers. I’m not sure however that Treliński’s ideas work entirely with the nature of Puccini’s scoring, and the singing in some areas seemed to have a similar problem reconciling the characters as they are defined in this production with the musical descriptions. Eva-Maria Westbroek has the right kind of voice for the stronger Puccini heroine (like Minnie in La Fanciulla del West), but she sounded a little breathy here in places and not always fully committed to what she was singing. Treliński’s directions to the singer that she must be an “impossible puzzle” and that “each scene must be played as if by a completely different actor”, might not have helped matters. When required however, she was certainly able to rise to the occasion. Brandon Jovanovich however was simply superb, demonstrating a gorgeous tone with wonderful voice control. With that strong, lyrical voice, and a well-judged dramatic performance, he was able to be expressive in a way that brought out the impetuosity of his character and infatuation, making this production a great deal more credible that it might otherwise have been. His indisposition on one of the nights during this run (a performance broadcast on Belgian radio) when he was replaced after the interval by Hector Sandoval, must surely have been a surreal experience straight out of Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway‘ or indeed Buñuel’s ‘That Obscure Object of Desire‘ that could surely only have enhanced Mariuz Treliński’s treatment.

La Monnaie’s production of Manon Lescaut is available to view from their free on-line streaming service until 4th March 2013.  Subtitles are in Dutch and French only. Their next streamed opera is Lucrezia Borgia, available for three weeks month from March 22nd.

Traviata

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

La Monnaie, Brussels, 2012 | Ádám Fischer, Andrea Breth, Simona Šaturová, Salomé Haller, Carole Wilson, Sébastien Guèze, Scott Hendricks, Dietmar Kerschbaum, Till Fechner, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Guillaume Antoine, Gijs Van der Linden, Matthew Zadow, Kris Belligh | Internet streaming, 15 December 2012

Let’s not beat around the bush here, because this controversial new production of Verdi’s La Traviata directed by Andrea Breth for La Monnaie in Brussels certainly makes its point directly and in no uncertain terms right from the outset. Prostitution is a nasty business. Courtesans, like Violetta Valéry in La Traviata, may once have had a glamorous allure, but the reality was and is quite different. The ultimate fate of any woman in those circumstances as the years and the lifestyle takes its toll, as they struggle to maintain appearances and simply survive, dependent upon the goodwill of others, is not a pretty one. Giuseppe Verdi acknowledged this as far as censorship allowed in La Traviata - and even then it would not allow the work to be depicted as Verdi wanted as a contemporary drama - showing a ‘fallen woman’ unable to find love and happiness. Director Andrea Breth goes much further.

Violetta’s origins are shown right from the outset of the La Monnaie production during the Overture, the young woman being brought in from some East European country via a human trafficking operation and sold off to a prostitution ring. The opening party scene of the work then retains the forced glamour depicted by Verdi’s setting of the scene, while at the same time showing that the underlying reality is not so pleasant. Semi-naked women pose glamorously from display windows behind a party that seems to be taking place in a high-class brothel, one that does a line in S&M, of which Violetta appears to be the Madame. Amid the drunken revelry, one of the guests, wearing a plaster cast, his trousers half on and half around his ankles, vomits over one of the semi-conscious female guests. At the end of the evening as Violetta ponders the shy advances of a new young admirer Alfredo (’Ah! Fors’è lui…‘), one straggling reveller, in a state where she is unable to find her stockings and shoes, snorts some cocaine in the background.

That’s not a typical way to depict Act I of La Traviata, but the brilliance of this production - a controversial one certainly that has stirred up a great deal of debate and which eventually forced La Monnaie to issue a statement with backing from other artists on the freedom of artistic expression - is that it remains musically and thematically faithful to the strengths of Verdi’s writing and the subject, making it contemporary and realistic in a way that the composer himself was prevented from doing by the censor. It’s not out to shock through a controversial treatment as much as to shock the audience into understanding and relating to the reality that Verdi was trying to get across. It’s a measure of the success of the treatment that this version of La Traviata - a work that unfortunately has all too often become a glamorous star turn for a big-name diva - is one of the most powerful of recent years, revitalised and sparkling, modern and relevant. It’s what La Traviata is all about.

The modern revisionist elements and the controversial sexual content of the production elsewhere similarly manage to strike a near-perfect balance between modern relevance and fidelity to the original intentions of the work. Scene 2 of Act I does little more than show an Alfredo so transported with love that he paints some graffiti love messages on a residence that currently has the workmen in. It’s the depiction of the revelry however in the pivotal Act II confrontation that is the most troubling part of the work - and it should indeed be a troubling scene. Keeping to the theme of the unpleasant reality of prostitution and the exploitation of women, Breth uses strong imagery and behaviour that is reminiscent of Pasolini’s film ‘Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom‘. (No, that’s not chocolate that one of the older guests is smearing over a young under-aged schoolgirl’s face). As a very difficult, near-unwatchable work about the dehumanisation and commoditisation of the human body, the corruption of wealth and power (money speaking just as much in Verdi’s day as in the present), Salò is a relevant work to reference. It isn’t taken to quite the same lengths in La Traviata here, but there’s enough to make a point in the strongest way possible, and enough evidently, to cause quite a stir in the world of opera.

As troubling as all this is intended to be, the ultimate degradation of Violetta and women in her position should be just as forceful in the final Act, as Breth’s vision proves to be quite as perceptive and capable of conveying the full intent and force of the underlying meaning with all the necessary impact. Violetta’s maidservant Annina is forced to pay the doctor through services provided on her knees, out on streets in a dark alley where her mistress is dying, wrapped up in plastic sheeting, as a heroin user shoots up further down from her. It’s as powerful an expression as you can imagine of the abject misery that is more than likely to be the fate of any aging prostitute who is seriously ill and has bills to pay. It may not be the romantic death of a tragic heroine through consumption in the bedroom of an elegant Parisian mansion that is more commonly shown in productions of this opera, but this version gets more directly to the heart of what Verdi was writing about and it is actually relatively mild to the harsh daily reality of the violence, abuse and exploitation that takes place on the streets in real life.

While the dramatic and thematic concept has been carefully thought through and put across with fidelity and a sense of purpose, that’s only half the battle with putting on La Traviata. The singing and performance of the work itself needs to be just as considerate of the work, and fortunately the casting and the conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra by Ádám Fischer were perfectly in accord with the staging. Early on, I liked how rhythm and tempo employed during Violetta’s ‘Sempre libera‘ matched Violetta’s tentative exhilaration at the discovery of love, tempered at the same time by the first signs of her illness. The judgement of each of the subsequent scenes however is just as sensitive and precise to the characterisation and the content, while also finding a way to make those diverse scenes and emotions flow naturally one after another. A most impressive account.

The singing is more of a mixed bag, but by and large it worked hand-in-hand with the drama. I always find it difficult to adjust to a new singer in one of the most famous roles in opera, but if Simona Šaturová didn’t have the force or technique of some of the more notable sopranos who have sung the role, she nonetheless made a deep impression and gained greater credibility and strength as the work progressed. All the roles were well-cast from the point of view of age and looks - that doesn’t often happen - and if Sébastien Guèze wasn’t the strongest singer who has ever sung the role, he reflected Alfredo’s youth and inexperience well, and with some degree of distinction and personality. Scott Hendricks wouldn’t be my ideal Giorgio Germont, but he also fits in well with the production. He can be a bit wayward and over-enthusiastic, but here he was relatively restrained, if still a little mannered and imprecise. In his ‘pura siccome un angelo‘, there’s a neat twist where the father uses its seductive appeal as a come-on to Violetta - another instance of the abuse of power - and Hendrix makes it work. It’s just one example of how the relationships have been thought through here - the father/son relationship between Hendrix and Guèze also works well - creating a convincing and realistic dynamic, showing a fine and considered understanding of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

There’s a reason why La Traviata is the most performed opera in the world. Verdi’s magnificent writing is of course the primary reason.  The composer’s later works are more sophisticated with greater dramatic expression and through-composition, but La Traviata is unmatched for the brilliance of melody and situational invention that brings its drama to life. But it’s also notable for the universality of the uncompromising sentiments the work and the music expresses on human relationships, on love, betrayal and mortality that still have the ability to reach us and touch us through their relevance. La Traviata was designed to show off Verdi’s brilliance as a composer - and it does - but it was also intended to create a scandal in its frank depiction of the attitudes of a corrupt and hypocritical society towards “fallen women” who strayed outside the boundaries of what was deemed respectable. This scandalous production at La Monnaie is a thrilling reminder of just how vital a work La Traviata remains.

The live broadcast of the 15th December performance of La Traviata is still available for free viewing on the ARTE Live Web site, without subtitles. La Monnaie’s recording of the production, taken from performances of 15th and 18th December, is also available for free viewing from their own website, with French and Dutch subtitles only.

LuluAlban Berg - Lulu

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2012 | Paul Daniel, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Barbara Hannigan, Natascha Petrinsky, Frances Bourne, Tom Randle, Dietrich Henschel, Charles Workman, Pavlo Hunka, Ivan Ludlow, Albrecht Kludzuweit, Rúni Brattaberg, Mireille Capelle, Beata Morawska, Benoît De Leersnyder, Gerard Lavalle, Charles Dekeyser, Anna Maistriau, Rosalba Torres Guerrero, Claude Bardouil | La Monnaie Internet Streaming

As a work that it was necessary to subject to some interpolation of the music score on account of its final Act being left largely unfinished by the composer at the time of his death in 1935, there’s a richness to Lulu that leaves it open to infinite rearrangement of its elements. The openness of its subject - the eternal ambiguity that is Lulu, or indeed the eternal ambiguity that is the fate of a woman in the modern world - and the nature of the writing means that even within the two acts that were fully scored by Alban Berg, there is a multiplicity of meaning that can be applied to its themes through the imposition of emphasis on different elements of the work. For Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski in his 2012 production for La Monnaie-De Munt in Brussels (viewed here via the opera house’s internet streaming service), the principal idea that is emphasised - the one that expresses the inner nature of Lulu before it becomes corrupted by the reality of her circumstances - is that of her childhood ambition to be a successful dancer.

To add further weight to this idea - a valid idea that doesn’t needs any further justification - Warlikowski refers to a little-known biographical detail in Berg’s life, an unacknowledged daughter, Albine, who he fathered with a woman twice his age who worked for the family. Later in life, Albine - a painter and a model - made contact with Berg, looking for a father or a father-figure, but also hoping perhaps to be taken seriously through her association with Berg in her dream of being an artist. For the director, it’s hard not to consider that the nature of this relationship would have found its way into the composition of Lulu, and it’s certainly an interesting detail that adds to the mystery and ambiguity of the work. Tied in with this is the parallel writing, incorporating elements of Lulu that would be used for the scoring of the unfinished third act in 1979 by Friedrich Cerha, of the violin concerto which would become a requiem for the 17 year old daughter of Alma Mahler and architect Walter Gropius. Another less likely reference that Warlikowski seems to drawn upon to express this desire to be a successful artist, the internal pressures that reveal cracks in the female psyche and the requiem “to the memory of an angel”, is Darren Aronofsky’s lurid melodrama ‘Black Swan‘.

The most obvious reference to this is in an extended dance sequence added to the end of the first act, where a dancer in a black tutu (Rosalba Torres Guerrero), stripping down to waist, performs the dance of the dying swan with extraordinary intensity, but there are other rather disturbing references that have a David Lynch quality (particularly with dual-killing at the end of the work of the blonde Lulu and the dark Countess Geschwitz), with dark masked figures always on the stage, in the background and on occasions taking over the roles of other characters who are complicit in her downfall. Young girls in ballet outfits also populate the stage, often within a glass cage - at least one of whom is presumably meant to represent Lulu’s innocence - but others reflect explicit references in the work to the sale into prostitution and the exploitation of women. Most directly however, Lulu herself is frequently dressed in tutus and dancer costumes, moves around en pointe, dancing to her doom.

Barbara Hannigan throws herself fearlessly into the role, but there’s really no other way to play Lulu. There’s a necessary balance that must be struck between a sense of abandon to her fate and the discipline that is required to maintain her sense of self, and playing the role as a dancer works very well with this idea. Hannigan was involved with the dance/opera collaboration in her last role this season at La Monnaie - Pascal Dupasin and Sasha Waltz’s Passion - and she puts the strength, flexibility and stamina demanded in that role to good use here, being metaphorically flung around and twisted, but also physically rolling around, holding dance poses and singing at the same time, while also being in a state of undress in provocative positions. Hannigan’s superb control of her high range and light soprano was perfect for the role of Lulu, and evidently it was tested to its limits here, with additional demands placed on the role by the nature of the dancing, but she was impressively capable throughout. She perhaps doesn’t have the robustness or the experience required for the darker side of her character’s development and downfall in the latter half of the work, but it could also be that the direction and the limitations of the concept (or its expansiveness) didn’t really give her a clear enough focus to work with. Regardless, Hannigan brought her own focus and intensity to the part and, by any standard, this was simply an extraordinary performance of Lulu.

There are many personalities and realities wrapped up within the complex powerplay of characters, in Berg’s extraordinary score and in Friedrich Cerha’s completion of the work that make this a difficult work to grasp entirely, and this production at least tries to capture the whole range of possibilities that this gives rise to within its design. It looks terrific, with a great deal going on in the foreground and the background - almost too much to take in really. Effective use is made of screens and projections, with additional dancers and figures presenting a disturbing freak-show display in a glass cage and a final act that is set in a ballet school dormitory (by way of an underground station) that feels frightening and exploitative. This Lulu was decadent where it ought to be, wild and abandoned, but also precise and intense on the points that matter. With a lavish production filled with ideas and resonances, Lulu’s extremely complex cast of personalities was given additional force through an all-round strong cast. Natascha Petrinsky brought a softer, more vulnerable but strong sensibility to the usually difficult to characterise Countess Geschwitz, Charles Workman was a handsomely voiced and driven Alwa, and Dietrich Henschel suitably and impressively menacing as Dr. Schön and Jack The Ripper.

This production of Lulu is available to view on-line for free for 21 days until 28th November, through the La Monnaie web site. Subtitles are available only in French and Dutch.

TrovatoreGiuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2012 | Marc Minkowski, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Scott Hendricks, Misha Didyk, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Marina Poplavskaya, Giovanni Furlanetto | La Monnaie Internet Streaming - 15 June 2012

There’s a case to be made for putting a little distance between the drama and the telling of it in Verdi’s potboiler, Il Trovatore. The plot is a difficult one to carry-off convincingly - a gypsy curse, a witch burned at the stake, a child kidnapped in revenge and thrown into the burning embers by the daughter of the gypsy, the whole affair creating hidden secrets and unrevealed identities. As it happens, all of these melodramatic events are kept at a certain distance already, the dark history related at the start of the opera by the Captain of the Guard at the start of Act I, and with a different spin put on it by the gypsy Azucena in Act II. Storytelling is moreover part and parcel of the whole work, Leonora relating her encounter and love for a handsome dark stranger, the opera itself getting its title from a troubadour, a wandering lyrical storyteller.

It’s undoubtedly with this in mind that Dmitri Tcherniakov stages Verdi’s 1853 opera Il Trovatore at La Monnaie in Brussels with the framing device of it being related, relived and re-enacted at some date in the future by the main protagonists. Considering the bloody fates of many of those characters, it is however a bit of a stretch to imagine them meeting up some years later on the instigation of Azucena. Like some Agatha Christie mystery where the main suspects have been assembled, the five main characters in Verdi’s drama turn up in the silent prologue - Leonora in a dark wig and wearing sunglasses, Manrico in a snakeskin jacket - greet each other after years of separation or warily edge around each other as Azucena locks the door to the room, keeping them captive there to work through the events that have occurred in order to “shed light on the tragic past that has united their destinies”.

In this way the director also removes many of the old traditional stage conventions and tired mannerisms that have become associated with this old standard, which itself has become a story that is just related, its heavy delivery and declamation detaching the work any sense of real meaning that might once have lain behind it (although one doubts that there are any serious intentions behind this Verdi opera). In Tcherniakov’s production this is no 15th century Spain in the Aragon region, there are no Biscay mountains here, no convent or nuns and there’s no traditional Anvil Chorus. The chorus is there, but they remain off-stage at all times, the work - one of Verdi’s most bombastic - reduced in the process to a chamber piece. Most significantly, the cast are thus reduced entirely down to five people, Inez and Ruiz among those roles which are not actually suppressed but sung through the doubling up of roles in the small cast - an idea that fits in fine with the role-playing concept. The whole opera is there, it’s just reduced to taking place within the confines of a single room.

If the intention is to similarly downplay the singing, then that’s achieved with the performances here, although some might think that the singing lacks the necessary dynamic, power and expansiveness. It’s an interesting cast then, but not one that particularly impresses. Scott Hendricks comes across the best here as the Conte di Luna, letting himself go with the flow of the concept, although he does also have perhaps the most expressive role in the opera. Misha Didyk is not my kind of Verdi singer, although with his choked back anguished delivery lacking any variety in vocal expression and showing no real acting ability, I’m not fond of his style of singing in Russian opera either. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo is a smaller-scale Azucena than is usually required, but she suits the tone here, as does Marina Poplavskaya as Leonora. Her technique isn’t always the smoothest when making the transition to the higher notes, but she has exactly that kind of expressive voice that is needed to bring depth to characterisation. She looks a little uncomfortable here however, a little restricted perhaps by the concept, and was surprisingly absent from the curtain call (”unwell” according to conductor Marc Minkowski when he took to the stage). Giovanni Furlanetto sang well as Ferrando (and Ruiz).

Overall however, Tcherniakov’s direction felt a bit weak, cutting away much of the baggage of the work certainly, but also restricting the drama with a concept that didn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. One might be happy to make some allowances in credibility to see something fresh and new brought out that would shed new light on Il Trovatore, but other than one or two scenes - the closing bloodbath ending certainly registered the requisite shocks - this was rarely achieved in dramatic terms. Musically however, Marc Minkowski’s conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra - his first time conducting Verdi - was much more interesting, his treatment suiting Tcherniakov’s idea of a chamber production, while at the same time indeed finding the strengths in Verdi’s score and successfully getting its underlying power across without unnecessary overemphasis. Otherwise the overall impression was that there was quite a bit of heat generated here, but not enough fire.

QuichotteJules Massenet - Don Quichotte

La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels 2010 | Marc Minkowski, Laurent Pelly, Silvia Tro Santafé, José van Dam, Werner Van Mechelen, Julie Mossay, Camille Merckx, Vincent Delhoume, Gijs Van der Linden, Bernard Villier | Naive

With piles of papers and documents piled up on the stage, Laurent Pelly’s production design for this 2010 performance of Massenet’s Don Quichotte at La Monnaie-De Munt in Brussels looks like something from an art installation, but it serves the opera well and in the process provides a suitable platform for José van Dam’s final bow from the opera stage. Taking a dream-like overview of the subject, Act I shows what looks like a the Don’s drawing room, where the aging knight is resting sitting in an armchair, a man past his prime, dreaming of better times, of his love for the beautiful Dulcinea that once inspired him to write verses of praise in her name - all of which are piled up in a small mountain below her balcony - and the idealism that drove him to what he believes to be chivalrous and intrepid acts of valour.

The dream world of the knight’s idealism in the subsequent four acts is similarly filled with sierras and landscapes made of hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper, reflecting the recreation of Don Quichotte’s exploits on paper and the lack of substantiality that these dreams are based on, the valiant knight forgetting that he is now just a foolish old man whose youth has faded. After a 50 year career, José van Dam’s voice may also lost some of its youthful vigour and strength, but the passion and sincerity is still there, and in that respect it’s a perfect fit for the role of Don Quixote that makes his performance of the role all the more poignant.

I’ve never really been able to find a distinctive stamp to Massenet’s varied opera styles, finding little that has made an impression beyond his most famous creations of Werther, Manon and Thaïs, but I’m always interested to find what can be brought out of the other works, particularly when they are fully staged. Don Quichotte seems like a rather slight work in this respect, but the composer nonetheless seems to find the right tone throughout for this ‘comédie-héroique en cinq actes’. A five-act opera, it is however surprisingly sprightly, each of the short brief scenes - the entire work coming in at under two hours - finding the right balance of adventure and nobility, foolishness and dignity, with little Spanish-inflected arrangements but also a certain French character. I don’t know if it gets to the essence of Cervantes (Massenet worked on a French adaptation “Le Chevalier de la Longue Figure” by Jacques Le Lorrain), but it seems to strike the right tone throughout that fits the character of the work.

Laurent Pelly’s production likewise seems an exceptionally good fit. The astonishing set designed by Barbara de Limburg is mostly static, but there are subtle changes over the course of the opera that reflect the deterioration of Don Quichotte’s mind, and a few neat touches - the battle with the windmills is well achieved - that bring the work to life at the right moments. The casting is also perfectly appropriate for this modest little work that is nonetheless not short on charm or beauty. Van Dam is Don Quixote incarnate, carrying himself as the “errant knight who rights wrongs” with exactly the right kind of proud nobility amid the confusion of old-age. He might not hold the low notes with the same rock-solid sureness, but it’s a lovely and thoughtful performance, sung very well indeed. Silvia Tro Santafé is a lovely Dulcinea, with a light, rich, sparkling tone to her French, even if the vibrato applied makes her at times sound like an old-time French cabaret singer, evoking Edith Piaf in places. Werner van Mechelen provides solid support as Sancho. Combined they form the kind of strong varied and sensitive trio of principals that the work needs, but the quartet roles and the chorus are also wonderful here.

Released on DVD only, the presentation of the performance is fine, if the image quality and sharpness is not quite as impressive as it might have been in HD. The audio likewise is disappointingly lower-spec, Dolby Digital 2.0 only, but the sound is clear and the tone is warm. The orchestration, conducted beautifully by Marc Minkowski, sounds wonderful, and the singing is mostly strong and clear in the mix. There are a few slight dips in the sound, usually only audible around the audience applause, but occasionally on the stage also, as if the microphones levels are being adjusted, but it’s a relative minor issue. The DVD includes an excellent hour-long feature that goes behind the scenes on the production in some detail.

OrlandoGeorge Frideric Handel - Orlando

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2012 | René Jacobs, Pierre Audi, Bejun Metha, Sophie Karthäuser, Kristina Hammarström, Sunhae Im, Konstantin Wolff | Internet Streaming, 12 May 2012

As conductor René Jacobs observes in the programme notes for this production of Orlando for La Monnaie-De Munt (watched via their Internet streaming service), Handel - like many other composers who have tackled the subject - must have felt somewhat inspired by the subject of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’, for in contrast to some of his works for the Kings Theatre in London where he reworked music from other earlier pieces, Orlando is composed of entirely new music. It may even be the case that Handel took a hand in the writing of the libretto itself, drawing from a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, introducing some new characters and arrangements to suit his own ideas.

Ever the businessman, there is clearly a calculated approach to Handel’s arrangements for Orlando, which works within the strict conventions of opera seria that audiences and singers would have expected, but seeking to make Italian opera a success in London, Handel also ensured that there is something in it for everyone. Even within the limitations of dramatic action that you can expect from such Baroque work, Handel extended the frame of the unrequited love story between the great warrior Orlando and Angelica, the Queen of Cathay through the introduction of the characters Dorinda and Zorastro - neither of whom appear in Ariosto’s source work - bringing a lighter element and even some comedy with the former and a supernatural aspect with the latter. This gives Handel scope to extend the emotional range of the work to some extent, but the majority of the work is still based around the expression and hiding of feelings between characters who still conform very much to commedia dell’arte types.

Orlando

The origins of the work extend back to ‘Le Chanson de Roland’, written by a monk at the end of the 11th century, which relates the tale of Roland (who becomes Orlando the story was developed into Italian by Ariosto) set against the background of Charlemagne’s campaign against the Saracens in 778. At the heart of the work is the supremacy of reason - symbolically shown with the appearance of an eagle in the third act - which helps quell the fires of passion that have been aroused during the romantic complications that have taken place. Dorinda is in love with Medoro, the wounded soldier she has been tending, but he is in love with Angelica, who shares his feelings. Orlando however is also in love with Angelica, but she can’t bring herself to admit to the heroic warrior who has saved her life that she is really in love with Medoro and, having been warned by Zorastro of Orlando’s jealous rages, she is somewhat frightened of the consequences should Orlando find out about her love for Medoro. And she has good reason to be cautious, for when Orlando discovers their names carved together on a tree, he burns down Dorinda’s house with Medoro inside and attempts to murder Angelica, until Zorastro’s intervention finally brings him back to his senses.

Concerned very much with inner feelings and emotions expressed and kept hidden, their force given expression through a descent into madness, Orlando does inevitably present a challenge when it comes to staging it. For Pierre Audi, the director of the De Nederlandse Opera, Orlando is very much a psychological drama, and his production accordingly uses the burning of Dorinda’s house as the key symbol of Orlando’s state of mind throughout. It’s certainly a valid way to approach the work, but Audi’s method introduces a few complications that don’t always seem to be entirely coherent or successful. The decision to portray Orlando as a fireman in Act I is a strange one - although one can see how it relates to a modern depiction of his heroism and the esteem that he is held in, as well as relating it to the notion of playing with fire, the fire of passion, and the pyromaniac actions that ensue later - but apart from the wearing of a helmet and some barrels and hoses on the stage, this occupation isn’t over-emphasised. Perhaps even more difficult to grasp however is the fluid approach towards the timeline of events that Audi sees as a reflection of Orlando’s perspective in his madness.

Orlando

In Act I then, Dorinda’s house has already been burned, the charred remains of its frame are all that are left of it, and Orlando and his firecrew are gathering the hoses back in. An altered view of the destroyed house is shown in the second act, which is where the derangement of Orlando’s nightmare is most pronounced, believing himself to be on the banks of the Styx and drawn to the land of the dead. Projections are used to emphasise his delirium, with repeated imagery of Orlando walking through fields of fire. Act III, where the house is actually burnt down, instead focuses on reconstruction, with a new frame being built, although - in line with the open ending - the rebuilding is necessarily left incomplete. Audi’s other idea for the stage treatment is to often have the characters remain on the stage even after their have sung their aria and should normally be making their exit. This is a fairly standard Brechtian device now, revealing the construct behind the drama, and it has relevance to the psychological nature of the opera’s themes, reflecting the mindset of Orlando’s nightmarish descent into madness, the jumbling of timelines in his mind and his presence at scenes where he is not normally involved reflecting his imagining or reconstruction of events in his mind.

Orlando

I’m not sure that this reorganisation of the events or their altered perspective really makes anything any clearer, whether it really gets into the mind of the character, or even that it makes the stage action any more compelling to watch, but it does seem to work well with the rather complex psychology and inner turmoil that is sung about and reflected in the score. That is brought out wonderfully by René Jacobs and the playing of the Baroque Orchestra B’Rock, Jacobs making the most of the freedom open to the conductor and the resources at their disposal by expanding the instrumentation for the basso continuo for the brief excerpts of recitative for a more fluid arrangement. The casting for this production is also very strong for all five main roles. Bejun Metha sings Orlando with an otherworldly quality that doesn’t however always seem to get to the heart of his passion and rage, but he is a very fine countertenor. Sophie Karthäuser is a marvellous Angelica and mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström handles the role of Medoro well, but again, you never feel any of them completely get to grips with the characters. In line with Handel’s revisions of the character dynamic in the work however, Sunhae Im displays the most personality as Dorinda, singing with a light beautiful Mozartian voice, and Konstantin Wolff adds the necessary weight as Zorastro.

Orlando is available for viewing free online on the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt until 2nd June 2012.

Oscar Bianchi - Thanks to my Eyes

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2011 | Franck Ollu, Joël Pommerat, Hagen Matzeit, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, Keren Motseri, Fflur Wyn, Anne Rotger, Antonie Rigot | Bel Air Media, La Monnaie Internet streaming

Eyes

Writing his first opera, commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and premiered there in 2011, Swiss-Italian composer Oscar Bianchi took a French drama by Joël Pommerat (‘Grâce à mes yeux’) as the source of Thanks to my Eyes, but took the unusual step of asking the author to adapt the work into the English language for the libretto. The reason for the change of language, according to the composer, working very much in the modern musical idiom, was purely technical and related to the more discordant sounds and textures evoked by the work that suited English singing better than the more musical-sounding French. I can think of another reason not explicitly stated by the composer why you would be cautious about setting a French-language drama to music, and that’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Even then, while there might be the occasional reminder of the more spooky elements of Britten’s Turn of the Screw in the chamber instruments, it still proves impossible to escape the huge influence of Debussy’s only opera and its extraordinary ability to fuse music to Maeterlinck’s already existing play, while keeping the original almost entirely intact. Bianchi’s approach to creating a musical ambience for Pommerat’s drama works - and works reasonably well to often striking effect, it has to be said - in a similar way. Cutting the original work back extensively to fit an opera work that is only about one hour and ten minutes long, the short scenes in Thanks to my Eyes have a similar feeling of incompleteness, interruption and open abstraction that is there in Debussy and Maeterlinck’s symbolist work. The similarities however exist more than just on the surface approach of connecting the music to the drama.

Eyes

While the story and themes are quite different to Pelléas et Mélisande, there are similarities in the theatrical representation of the drama. A young man, Aymar, timid and solitary, is dominated by his famous father, a great comedian who, in the first scene, is shown handing one of the suits he uses in his act to his son, clearly expecting him to follow in his footsteps. His dominance of Aymar however also extends to control over finding a suitable woman for the young man, suggesting and trying to influence Aymar into choosing a woman like his own mother, much as he chose his wife based on his own mother. Aymar however is torn between two women, a Young Blond Woman and a mysterious cloaked Young Woman in the Night who keeps her face covered, who he secretly meets on a mountain top away from the eyes of his family. He knows however that he must break off this relationship, but is too timid to even be able to take that step.

Reducing the drama down to key scenes, although maintaining a linear, serial flow, even if some of the scenes are rather abstract in nature, does have the impact of bringing any undercurrents and symbolism directly to the surface. Like Debussy however, even though he is working in a much different musical language, the intention of Bianchi is to convey a sense of deeper meaning and suggestion beyond actual language and physical expression. While on the one hand then the figures all fit into regular types - domineering father, passive mother, child seeking to find his own sense of self and expression apart from them - there are other intriguing elements that are indeed evoked by the drama scenes, lighting and the use of the atmospheric chamber music. It may not be the most memorable or melodic music, but its intent is to integrate more fully into the whole theatrical process as a Gesamkunstwerk, as does the expression through the singing.

Eyes

The singing on this recording at the opera’s world premiere run in Aix-en-Provence, is of an exceptionally high standard, and when I say exceptionally high, I’m not just referring to the unusual use of a countertenor voice for Aymar, sung by Hagen Matzeit. This is an appropriate choice for the figure, emphasising his difference from his (not unexpected) bass-baritone father, Brian Bannatyne-Scott. The singing and sometimes wayward phrasing weave in complex ways, and work well off each other in this context. Interestingly, while the two women are sopranos (both singing the roles wonderfully, Fflur Wyn in particular having to reach some extraordinary high notes), the mother has a speaking-role only, and speaks in French, as do the others when speaking to her. The dramatic reasons for this are remain unexplained - it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that their mother might be a native French speaker - but it does introduce another intriguing dramatic and vocal element that contributes to the overall complexity of the meaning contained within the overall soundscape.

The tone of the music and singing and the effect it creates is matched by the staging, directed by the original author and librettist, Joël Pommerat. Locations are generic - outdoors, indoors, on a mountain top, at a edge of a cliff - uniformly grey in the darkness (barring a sunrise and some atmospheric lighting effects here and there), sparse and solitary, clearly evoking an emotional landscape more than a literal one. On the whole, regardless of what you judge to be the qualities of the often obscure motivations and actions in the drama or whether you find the style of music pleasant or not, the work does indeed transport you into another world entirely and hold you in its thrall for over an hour.

Broadcast via the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt, (available on-line until 5th May 2012) this recording unusually isn’t of the current production running in Brussels, but a recording made at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2011. I’m not sure how this would have been presented on the stage, but the television recording allows the disparate scenes to flow and change without any breaks in the music, using frequent intertitles (in French) along the lines of “A few moments later, in the same place” or “That night, on the mountain top” to effect the rapid switches in time and location. Yes, Thanks to my Eyes is a rather strange, experimental piece of avant-garde music-theatre whose meaning may be difficult to fathom, with music and singing that may be challenging to the ears, but it does succeed in creating an alternative means of expression that comes across effectively on the screen and I’m sure even more so in a theatre.

Next Page »