Epic Journey: The Convert at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

Henderickx – The Convert

Vigdis – Lore Binon
David / Shipowner / Embriachi / Commander – Vincenzo Neri
Chaperon / Agatha / Second Desert Woman – Amel Brahim-Djelloul
Lutgardis / Fake Messiah / First Desert Woman / Innkeeper – Fran
çoise Atlan
Celebrant / Urbanus / Priest – Daniel Arnaldos
Rabbi Obadiah – Luvuyo Mbundu
Gudbrandr / Rabbi Todros / Swindler / Raymond of Toulouse – Guido Jentjens

Kinderkoor Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Koor Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Stadskoor Madame Fortuna, Symfonisch Orkest Opera Ballet Vlaanderen / Koen Kessels.
Stage director – Hans Op de Beeck.

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Ghent, Flanders, Belgium.  Saturday, June 4th, 2022.

In an introductory note in the program book, the Artistic Director of Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Jan Vandenhouwe, mentioned that an opera house has a responsibility to expand the repertoire.  This new commission and world premiere of De bekeerlinge – The Convert by Wim Henderickx is certainly a statement of intent.  It uses the full forces of the house: orchestra with additional electronics, chorus, children’s chorus, all combined with the participation of a community chorus from the city of Antwerp, organized under the auspices of the Oude Badhuis cultural centre. 

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

The Convert is based on the acclaimed novel by Stefan Hertmans, here rendered into an English-language libretto by Krystian Lada.  The epic story revolves around the life of Vigdis, later Sarah, born into a Christian Norman family, she falls in love with the Jewish David, and subsequently converts to the Hebrew faith.  Her life takes her to Narbonne, Egypt, and Spain, during which time she’s attacked, raped, and threatened with immolation at the stake.  It’s an interesting story and, based on this evening, I would certainly be keen to read the novel.

In conceiving his opera, Henderickx was eager to integrate musical influences and performers from a variety of traditions.  Alongside the opera singers, we also have noted interpreter and ethnomusicologist of Sephardi music, Françoise Atlan.  The voices were amplified, presumably to allow them to be heard over the electronics.  Henderickx’s score also reflects these myriad influences.  There are echoes of minimalism, combined with the surging melodies of 1950s film scores.  Hints of traditional Sephardi melodies gave a welcome familiarity to this writer of Sephardi descent.  There was a richness to the orchestral tapestry that I found beguiling.  Similarly, Henderickx uses the community chorus most innovatively – not just to sing melodies, but to use sounds and language to add haunting atmospheric effects from within the auditorium.  And yet, I found Henderickx’s word setting disappointingly repetitive.  The vocal line had a tendency to just go up at the end of a phrase which, over the course of three hours, became jarringly repetitive.  It struck me that Henderickx could make a superb suite from the music of this opera, one that could become a welcome addition to the orchestral repertoire. 

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

The staging was confided to Hans Op de Beeck, who was previously responsible for the set and costume design for Don Carlos here, back in 2019.  He certainly used the stage wisely, a constantly-changing series of backdrops gave visual contrast, while the addition of various bits of stage furniture – stones, a clear box filled with water for the mikveh, ladders for the stake – added additional visual interest.  Lada’s libretto used most of the principals to incarnate multiple roles, and we saw them being dressed and made up in plain sight on either side of the stage by the house’s wardrobe team.  Personenregie was, unfortunately, rather pedestrian and rudimentary in nature.  Other than a couple of exceptions, the acting we saw tonight was far from the level we have come to expect at this address.  The chorus was marched on and off in a somewhat zombie-like manner.  Lada’s libretto was occasionally fruity in language, but it wasn’t helped by the word setting or the perfunctory acting.  Op de Beeck closed the evening with the entire company lying down on stage.  Was he reminding us of the mass graves of the Shoah or of other previous pogroms?  Hard to know, but I left with an impression of a staging that had some interesting ideas, but where the execution could have been stronger.

Lore Binon dominated the evening in the title role.  Her soprano was creamy at the core, even in emission, and soared agreeably.  She displayed great dedication to all that was asked of her.  Vincenzo Neri brought a very handsome baritone to his roles.  The sound is firm and masculine and he’s also an engaging actor.  Amel Brahim-Djelloul sang her music in a bright, crystalline soprano with an easy top.  Guido Jentjens brought a stentorian bass to this music, while Daniel Arnaldos coped admirably with an exceptionally high tessitura in his roles.  As Rabbi Obadiah, Luvuyo Mbundu gave us a warm and resonant baritone, singing his music with eloquence and poetry.  Atlan was not used to her best advantage.  Given her expertise in Sephardi music, it was a shame that she was not given the opportunity to demonstrate this in the vocal line. 

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

The house chorus sang with the customary warmth of tone and good blend.  The community chorus also sang with precision and enthusiasm.  Koen Kessels led the orchestra in a reading that fully brought out the vibrant sound world of the score.  Strings soared longingly in those big melodies, while the violence and unanimity of the brass stabs was most impressive.  The winds gurgled attractively through the textures.  Certainly, the orchestral playing was at the extremely high level one has come to expect at the house.

This was something of a mixed evening.  Henderickx’s opera tells us a fascinating story, one that has much to tell us about love, religion, and hatred between peoples.  There was a lot to admire in the dedication of the cast and of the community forces, and the quality of the orchestral playing.  That said, the repetitiveness of the word setting and the perfunctory personenregie were rather disappointing.  I did greatly appreciate the sophistication of Henderickx’s orchestral writing and would welcome an opportunity to hear a suite based on the opera.  The capacity audience received the cast warmly at the curtain calls. 

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