Messager - Fortunio

Opéra Comique, Paris, Wednesday December 16 2009

Conductor: Louis Langrée. Production: Denis Podalydès. Sets: Eric Ruf. Costumes: Christian Lacroix. Lighting: Stéphanie Daniel. Fortunio : Joseph Kaiser. Jacqueline : Virginie Pochon. Maître André: Jean-Marie Frémeau. Clavaroche: Jean-Sébastien Bou. Landry: Jean-François Lapointe. Lieutenant d’Azincourt: Philippe Talbot. Lieutenant de Verbois: Jean Teitgen. Madelon: Sarah Jouffroy. Maître Subtil: Jérôme Varnier. Guillaume: Eric Martin-Bonnet. Gertrude: Clémentine Margaine. Les Eléments chorus. Orchestre de Paris.

Whatever it takes to grasp Messager, I haven’t got it. “C’est une musique facile” - easy music – said a man in the row in front as we gathered our coats to leave. Well it might have been easy for him but, on the contrary, I find it very hard indeed to bring into focus and impossible to recall. The first two acts seemed to witter on aimlessly, with distinct Debussy undertones; in acts three and four the music had more definite shape and when the hero got worked up there was a fine aria. But otherwise it did nothing for me (and the off-beat accentuation of the antiquated libretto often got on my wick; so much for the FT critic's praise for "Messager’s extraordinary facility at putting words to music." He must have cloth ears and probably likes Debussy). As with Véronique at the Châtelet, to me it was well-made but unmemorable. Clearly I’m not cut out for what the French might call “un art tout en demi-teintes,” art that’s all half-tints (Messager premiered Pelléas, a bad omen), and a hybrid genre neither comedy nor tragedy - though absolutely French: the usual tale of casual adultery - just light-hearted fluff.

The critics seem to have been very pleased with Denis Podalydès’ production. It reminded me, however, of the one season when, fed up with four-hour Latin-American Marxist plays staged without an interval at the Théâtre National de La Colline, we decided to try the Comédie Française, where Podalydès usually hangs out. Not once, in that season, did we stay after the break, and we didn’t renew our subscriptions. It was like visiting a theatre museum, not a theatre. I’ve been back only once since, for Bob Wilson’s witty staging of Lafontaine’s Fables. This decidedly un-witty Fortunio was the kind of production in which a soldier can’t sing a note without putting a foot on a chair and leaning forward with a wry smile: totally conventional in ideas and gestures. The costumes were by Christian Lacroix but might have been anyone’s (mostly brown) designs for La Bohème and certainly hadn’t been tailored in his haute couture workshops: Jean-Sébastien Bou would have cut a much more dashing military figure in a properly-cut uniform (though in long johns and black-toed crimson socks he looked perfect).

The sets were flimsy and somewhere between plain ordinary and plain ugly. Act one was a misty, snowy courtyard, surrounded by a kind of veranda, with three puzzlingly scraggy trees and the Opéra Comique’s by now famous stage walls visible through gauzes. The bedroom was mainly a pair of narrow beds, a wardrobe, a stove and a smoking chimney. Act three involved some wooden walls and piles of logs, and for act four the bedroom was back, but this time open to the courtyard through net curtains.

The orchestre de Paris, under Langrée, was heavy-handed but the cast was absolutely perfect for this kind of work, not one weak link. If only I found it more interesting. My problem, I know, not Messager’s…


  1. Sad pathetic little review. Oh the small-minded critics - better off at home with coffee and a good cd - if you think there is such a thing.


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