Sun 7 Apr 2013
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.