Philippe Boesmans - Au Monde
La Monnaie - De Munt, Brussels 2014
Joël Pommerat, Patrick Davin, Frode Olsen, Werner Van Mechelen, Stéphane Degout, Charlotte Hellekant, Patricia Petibon, Fflur Wyn, Yann Beuron, Ruth Olaizola
La Monnaie, ARTE Concert - Internet Streaming, April 2014
La Monnaie's bringing together of composer Philippe Boesmans and playwright Joël Pommerat for a newly commissioned opera is an intriguing one and in many ways, for better or worse, Au Monde lives up to whatever expectations one might have of both of the Belgian creators. That's not to say that the result is entirely predictable. There's no doubt that there is a true collaboration here that manages to draw something new and unexpected out of both contributors.
Musically, Au Monde is quite different from the serialism of Reigen, my only previous encounter with Boesmans, but the Belgian composer has clearly worked in a variety of styles in opera with adaptations of Shakespeare (Wintermärchen) and Strindberg (Julie), as well as reinterpreting Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (La Passion de Gilles). For his part Joël Pommerat previously collaborated with Oscar Bianchi on an adaptation of his play 'Grace a mes yeux' (Thanks to My Eyes), a work that shared characteristics with Maeterlinck and Debussy. There's a lot of room here then for both creators to find and share common ground in Au Monde.
It's clear that Au Monde comes from the same source as Thanks to my Eyes, the work not so much a straightforward drama or character piece as an exploration of archetypal family figures in conflict with themselves and in a state of suspended tension with one another. If Boesmans' music is more melodic and lyrical here, it's more closely related to the particular colours, sonorities of the characters and the rhythms of the dialogues and relationships between them in a way that - particularly in the intonations of the French language - can't help but remind one of Pelléas et Mélisande.
Much as it should, the music and singing voices undoubtedly contribute to filling out the characters and the relationships between them. Or, if the figures and their personalities remain rather difficult to determine, the music at least adds another dimension in place of any recognisable narrative. It's certainly easy to see however that there are tensions between them and where those tensions are coming from. Much of it centres on Ori, the son, and the only one with an actual name in Au Monde.
...like murder? That's where it all gets a little stranger in Au Monde and difficult to define. Three women have recently been murdered in the town. There haven't been any such murders in a while now, but the new murders coincide with Ori's return. It might not be that simple though. Each of the three sisters of the family also have issues. The elder sister is seems to have a never-ending pregnancy and her husband has brought in a foreign woman to care for her needs; the second sister is an actress who can't bear to watch herself on the TV; the youngest sister, who is celebrating her birthday, is actually a lookalike replacement for a daughter who disappeared (called Phèdre), and she inevitably has some identity problems.
Pommerat cites Chekhov's 'Three Sisters' as a reference and notes that the name Ori comes from Orestes, but clearly the family references are a little more complex than that with Racine's 'Phaedra' mentioned and there's perhaps something of 'King Lear' in there as well. Comparisons to Debussy's and Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande are unavoidable, and a few other more modern surrealist references suggest David Lynch territory. Much of the strangeness, in this respect, seems to derive from the actress second sister, such as the foreign woman singing 'My Way' in a man's voice at certain points (these are noted in the libretto as being "perhaps a dream of the second daughter"). Whether Ori is involved in the murder is very much left open, like much else in this strange mix of genre and artiness.
The transition from theatre to opera undoubtedly involved some cutting back of Pommerat's original work, but this open air of vagueness and mystery is very much a part of the work. It's certainly heightened by Boesmans' score and by the breaking up of the work into 20 short elliptical scenes that seem to hold the characters in a permanent state of suspension or tension with one another. None of this ever seems to amount to anything meaningful than the characters walking around making ominous statements about their position, despite the attempt to insert some murder-mystery into the proceedings and despite the undoubted beauty of Boesmans' musical score.
The writing for the voice too is wonderful and there's an exceptionally strong cast here at La Monnaie to interpret it. Working from an existing play, there is a certain amount of recitative in the dialogue, but Boesmans has managed to fit the voice types well, and not just according to the traditional types for family roles. If the elder sister is an aloof and distant contralto (Charlotte Hellekant - very fine), the drama queen middle sister (Patricia Petibon) is a diva coloratura and the younger sister a high-end soprano (Fflur Wyn). The Second Sister and her character directs most of the drama and mystery, and Petibon is superb in her tecnhique, control and interpretation. Ori is also an mportant figure, albeit with less to sing, but it still needs a French baritone of personality and ability and Stéphane Degout has that.
It's probably not much of a surprise that Pommerat's stage direction tends to be rather straightforwardly theatrical. There's not a great deal of consideration given to the sets, but the long beam of light in the darkness of the rooms and the huis clos atmosphere does suggest an open door to an outside world (au monde) that the characters are fearful or unwilling to move towards. The cold, detached elegance of the characters is perfectly captured however in the lighting and the costumes. Much like Thanks to my Eyes, this all casts an appropriate atmosphere, and it's one into which Patrick Davin weaves the haunting Wagnerian emotional sweep and the intricate Debussian touches of Boesmans' score most effectively.
Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert