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22 Jan 2007

Philippe Boesmans – Julie

La Monnaie, Brussels – March 13 2005

Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Production: Luc Bondy. Sets: Richard Peduzzi. Jean: Garry Magee. Julie: Malena Ernman. Kristin: Kerstin Avemo. La Monnaie Chamber Orchestra.

When a brand new opera has just been premiered, there are two things you’d like to find out from a review: (1) was it any good? and (2) what was it like? For me, as an amateur “reviewing” Philippe Boesmans’ new opera Julie (based on Strindberg’s play) after just one hearing, answering the first question is easy: yes. Answering the second is a good deal harder. But I’ll give it a try – and try, also, to make fewer factual errors than some professionals…

The first thing that came to mind was that the overall style was like a meeting between Britten’s Screw and Zemlinksy’s Der Zwerg. Thoughts of the former, I decided, were probably due mainly (only?) to Boesmans’ use of a chamber ensemble of around 20 players and to the opera’s claustrophobic, country-house setting, plus the fact that La Monnaie’s recent Screw was also directed by Bondy in sets by Peduzzi (of Chéreau Ring fame, for those who hadn’t yet made the link) bearing some slight resemblance to these. But the latter was brought to mind by the surprisingly exotic, orientalist lyricism of many of the motifs, supported by the use of such instruments as bass flute (an inevitably sultry sound), harp, celesta and gongs.

I say surprising because, although I have so far only heard Boesmans in the theatre and have not studied him further at home, this was, unless my memory fails me (and that’s perfectly plausible at my age) a less uncompromising, less stern style than in, say, Reigen and Wintermärchen. The point, I supposed, was to add sultriness to the score (for a sultry tale). “Gorgeous” was a word that often came to mind as the music glittered and gleamed. In my view, the interweaving of these lyrical motifs and more agitated, aggressive chromatic passages at dramatic points in the story was a complete success. Overall, the impression I got was of a beautifully-crafted, small-scale work – small, multi-tasking orchestra, cast of three, duration 75 minutes.

By way of a second (this time, professional) opinion: the programme notes contain a lengthy analysis which tell us that “Berg, Richard Strauss and Wagner […] are never very far away, in the same way as Mozart,” and goes on to say: “[In Boesmans’ score] the transgression of grammars and styles becomes a fundamental element. One example: if the composer seems to have invited German romantic opera to the meeting, it is only the better to destroy its phraseology […] to replace it with meticulous work based on short motifs, more usually a baroque practice. The situation seems somewhat hybrid, as if Monteverdi were shaking hands with Richard Strauss. Our ear is naturally intrigued and the discourse gains in dynamism through such ambiguities. Grammatically speaking, Boesmans’ music escapes too-obvious affirmations and categorisations. [It] is made up of subtle, obsessive oscillations between the most audaciously chromatic and the elementarily modal.”

La Libre Belgique’s critic complained that the staging rendered the drama banal. I saw what she meant: Peduzzi’s high, narrow, kitchen, with its pale walls, apples drying on newspaper on the floor, and sunlight streaming in through high, narrow windows, was perhaps too bright a setting. A darker one might have brought a more sinister touch. The acting was excellent, but again perhaps a little too close to our everyday selves. But nevertheless, a production of great clarity and precision.

About the singers, there’s little so say. Perhaps Malena Ernman could have used a little more dramatic power, Magee too, but that’s really quibbling. The instrumentalists, under La Monnaie’s music director Kasushi Ono, played with great clarity and precision, too, and a good deal of warmth and lyricism.

This is a co-production with the Aix festival and the Vienna Festwöchen, so it will travel, probably further still after those first outings, and the chances are it will end up on TV, if not also on DVD. I, for one, will be keeping an eye out, ready to snap it up. I look forward to hearing it again and knowing it a good deal better.

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