Brewaeys and Offenbach in Brussels

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday February 11 2007

Luc Brewaeys - L'uomo dal fiore in bocca

Offenbach - Monsieur Choufleuri restera chez lui le...

Conductor: Patrick Davin. Production: Frédéric Dussenne. L'uomo dal fiore in bocca: Davide Damiani. Un pacifico avventore: Yves Saelens. Tre voci femminili: Hendrieckje Van Kerckhove, Pati Helen-Kent, Isabelle Everarts de Velp. Monsieur Choufleuri: Michel Trempont. Chrysodule Babylas: Yves Saelens. Petermann: Lionel Lhote. Monsieur Balandard: Pierre Doyen. Ernestine: Hendrickje Van Kerckhove. Madame Balandard: Pati Helen-Kent. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

I was just about able to find a link between the works in last week’s double-bill in Paris, but this Sunday in Brussels I was hard put to dream one up. Was it meant to be a stark lesson on our persistent frivolity when we ought instead to be preparing for certain death? Apparently not: the director, Frédéric Dussenne, asked Bernard Foccroulle, director of La Monnaie, who told him simply that he “felt like doing both.”

This was the first time I heard anything by Luc Brewaeys. Interviewed in the programme, he tells us “My style is generally described as symphonico-spectral, with lyrical elements. The spectral method brings a rich palette of colours to the orchestra. Spectral means that the harmony is based not on the fundamental tones but on the harmonics […] used as a sort of mode. This enables you to obtain enormous variations in colour. At first sight, my score appears to be thick with dissonances. I think, however, that these are not perceived as such, but rather as a broadening of the harmonic spectrum. The final chord, for example, will undoubtedly be perceived as harmonious, despite the quarter tones.”

He was right. The score, clearly highly competent, rich and colourful (with lots of extra oriental percussion massed to the right of the pit), while undeniably contemporary, seemed to toy with tonality – shifting in and out of it, as it were – and with the conventions of traditional opera: recognisably distinct “numbers”; recitative with the orchestra surging up and fading away between sung parts; arioso with instrumental obbligato – in this case, a long tuba one…

But in truth this 45-minute work is not necessarily opera: Brewaeys himself says it is “as much an opera as a symphony with vocal obbligati or a tuba concerto.” The libretto, not so much theatrical as literary text, is very nearly a monologue, delivered by a man who knows he’s soon to die of an incurable cancer. Here, the work was staged, but the stage was a bare, black station platform, nothing more. “L’uomo” wore a grey suit; the “avventore” and the wife (no singing) wore beige raincoats. The three off-stage voices were… off-stage. The minimal action was not particularly convincing – standing, arms dangling. In all, it might have been better not to bother.

With a little editing – and a more charismatic soloist with a better bottom range, such as Keenlyside, it could very successfully be presented as a dramatic cantata for baritone and three off-stage voices, not acted at all.

The staging of Monsieur Choufleuri was minimal too, though we did have a bedroom, with a wall of striped red wallpaper and a gilded cornice, a bedstead in front of that and a ladder up from the pit. There were stags’ heads suspended in mid-air on wooden shields above. The gilded cornice formed the balustrade to a gangway behind the upper part of the wall, along which the characters and chorus could walk or lounge to watch Monsieur Choufleuri’s concert.

Monsieur Choufleuri restera chez lui le..., for those who may not know it, is a daft but delightful farce. Young lovers save the day by standing in for cancelling singers, and get permission to marry - and a dowry - by threatening to reveal all to the guests. The flimsy story provides just enough excuse for a series of silly but – of course – finely-crafted numbers and a lot of cod, kitchen Italian, culminating in a parody of Donizettian/Bellinian opera at least as good as Britten’s at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Better, possibly.

The singing, though not quite ideal, was nevertheless better than the acting, which was reminiscent of school productions. And while the singers hammed away shamelessly on stage in their da-glo costumes, down in the pit, the orchestral playing lacked the sprightly bounce of Les Musiciens du Louvre under Minkowski. Only nobody cared: far too busy laughing their socks off.

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