Berlioz – Béatrice et Bénédict
Don Pedro – Frédéric Caton
Claudio – Étienne Dupuis
Bénédict – Sébastien Droy
Don Juan – Sébastien Dutrieux
Léonato – Pierre Barrat
Héro – Sophie Karthäuser
Béatrice – Michèle Losier
Samarone – Lionel Lhote
Ursule – Ève-Maud Hubeaux
Chœurs de la Monnaie, Symfonieorkest van de Munt / Samuel Jean.
Stage director – Richard Brunel.
La Monnaie – De Munt, Muntpaleis op Tour & Taxis, Brussels, Belgium. Sunday, April 3rd, 2016.
While its handsome home is being renovated, La Monnaie – De Munt has been operating in a number of venues throughout the city of Brussels such as Bozar and the Royal Circus. Today’s Béatrice et Bénédict was performed in the Muntpaleis, a specially constructed tent on the grounds of the Tour & Taxis exhibition ground. The first thing to mention is that one should double check the time one counts on getting there. Not only are the Tour & Taxis grounds located on the edge of downtown Brussels, but the Muntpaleis itself is located deep within the grounds. There is a golf cart service available from the entrance for those with limited mobility. Once within the theatre it has everything one could expect from an opera house in terms of facilities. The numbers on the seats do not reflect the number on the ticket but there is a large-scale seating plan to help you find your seat located in the entrance hallway and there are many ushers helping spectators to retrieve their seats. At the end of the show, there is a taxi reservation desk in the lobby for those who wish to book one. I was informed in advance by email that no bags were permitted on the site, including purses, but this did not seem to be strictly enforced, at least today. Acoustically, it seemed perfectly serviceable – a little on the dry side perhaps but adequate for a temporary facility.
When I collected my ticket, the friendly associate handed me a slip of paper. It mentioned that since the piece took place in a time of war, there would be armed soldiers bursting in on the scene and that one should not be alarmed. Indeed, the idea of a society suffering with the post-traumatic after-effects of war is something that Richard Brunel’s staging explores at great length. This isn’t a staging that brings out the nocturnal Mediterranean beauty of Berlioz’ score nor its quicksilver wit, rather it’s one that imposes a view of the piece that is frequently at odds with what one hears in the music and in the libretto. As those who read this site regularly know, I am open to a new reading of the text and stagings that make one consider the work in a new way. However, unlike Johannes Erath’s Ballo that I saw last week in Munich which clearly took its inspiration from the text, I felt that today’s interpretation failed to use the text to justify its vision to the extent that the dialogue had to be significantly rewritten to accommodate it, and felt at odds with what one heard in the orchestra and in the vocal lines. At the end Héro and Claudio do not get married and Héro walks away. Whereas in Richard Jones’ Ariodante for example, he uses a similar idea and it works, because it had been allowed to develop through the evening, here it comes from nowhere and feels grafted on. Likewise, the burgeoning relationship between Béatrice and Bénédict didn’t quite take flight not because of the performances of the individual singers but because it was hard to believe that the two could be so happy when Claudio and Héro were devastated.
In many ways, the metaphor of a society traumatized by violence is one that is incredibly powerful in Brussels right now and it is clear that the theatre wished for it to be a kind of catharsis for the residents of this wonderful city. The sets (Anouk Dell’aiera) and costumes (Claire Risterucci) reflect a post second world war city, with holes in the roof through which the rain pours in and sepia tints in the set design and costumes. There is even an extremely homoerotic moment where the gentlemen of the cast disrobe and bathe, fooling around with each other in high spirits. Some mobile closets create plentiful opportunities for playing with characters hiding from each other. Yet, the overall sense I had is of a staging that took a tangent and never really got back onto course.
It was however extremely well sung by a cast of wonderfully fresh young voices. All the singers were Francophones from Belgium, France, Switzerland and Quebec and the dialogue was allowed to fizzle along nicely. Sébastien Droy was a very fine Bénédict. His is a slightly grainy tenor with a wonderful line and genuine musicality and that ideal union of text and music most certainly present. The top tightens ever so slightly but he dispatched his contributions to the trio ‘me marier? dieu me pardonne!’ with terrific ease and élan. Étienne Dupuis similarly was a genially masculine presence as Claudio, rich of voice with a warm and generous sound, the way he mapped Claudio’s journey to betrayal and as a broken man at the end was deeply moving. Frédéric Caton’s Don Pedro was sung in a nicely-focused and resonant bass that I would certainly like to hear more of.
The ladies were equally satisfying. Michèle Losier was a fabulous Béatrice. Hers is a voice that has wonderful roundness but also good cutting power to fill the theatre. Her plum-toned mezzo has good agility and uses the words fully to create the character and illuminate the vocal line. This is a voice that will surely fill out even more and I would certainly like to hear her as Didon or even Eboli in a decade or so. Her big scene, ‘dieu que viens-je d’entendre?’, was dispatched with good resonance, an attractive vibrato and the strength and resolve of the aria really came out through the voice. Deeply impressive. Sophie Karthäuser is a known quantity and once again she did not disappoint. That glorious sound with the smile in the voice was more than present and she sounded today even bigger than on the previous occasions I have heard her with a fuller sound and use of vibrato which she really brought out in her opening number ‘je vais le voir’. Her duet with Ève-Maud Hubeaux’s Ursule, ‘nuit paisible’ which is surely one of the most ravishing things Berlioz ever wrote, was so wonderfully blended, Karthäuser’s silvery soprano contrasting beautifully with Hubeaux’s youthful focused and resonant contralto.
The chorus pulled off the tricky syncopations in ‘le vin de Syracuse’ with ease but tone in the enchanting, guitar-accompanied ‘Viens! viens, de l’hyménée’ (another of the most beautiful things Berlioz ever wrote) was blowsy with some over-prominent vibratos among the ladies. The orchestra played very well; indeed they didn’t put a single metaphorical foot wrong throughout the entire afternoon. Samuel Jean insisted on some weighty string tone and certainly got it though I felt he smoothed over some of the more original aspects of Berlioz’ writing such as the angular rhythms in the chorus ‘Dieu qui guidas dans nos bras’. Otherwise it was a more than competent reading that kept the music flowing along nicely.
Today was a bit of a mixed experience. The production seemed to lack a firm grounding in the text and didn’t completely bring out the mercurial nature of Berlioz’ work and I also felt that it didn’t quite provide a cogent argument as to the effectiveness of this alternative reading. It was also extremely busy with action constantly taking place though credit should be given to Brunel for the fact that the singers addressed and engaged with each other rather than standing and delivering at the front. The performances of this run were dedicated to the victims of the horrific March 22nd attacks on Brussels and the aim of the creative team to create a meditation on relationships in a post-violent context was an absolutely sincere and heartfelt one. It was fabulously sung by a highly talented youthful cast and every word could be heard. It was certainly worth seeing, once again consolidating this theatre’s reputation as an innovative venue with high musical and theatrical values.