Boesmans - Yvonne, Princesse de Bourgogne

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday September 19 2010

Conductor: Patrick Davin. Production: Luc Bondy. Sets: Richard Peduzzi. Costumes, hair and make-up: Milena Canonero. Lighting: Dominique Bruguière. Yvonne: Dörte Lyssewski. Le Roi Ignace: Paul Gay. La Reine Marguerite: Mireille Delunsch. Le Prince Philippe: Marcel Reijans. Le Chambellan: Werner Van Mechelen. Isabelle: Hannah Esther Minutillo. Cyrille: Jason Bridges. Cyprien: Jean-Luc Ballestra. Innocent: Guillaume Antoine. Le Mendiant: Marc Coulon. Les Tantes: Beata Morawska, Alain-Pierre Wingelinckx. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

I’d heard of psychodrama but Yvonne, Princesse de Bourgogne was my chance to meet psychocomedy. I suspect that to be fascinated by either you need to be intellectually inclined, and I’m not, so I wasn’t. Yvonne is based on a play by a Pole called Gombrowicz, in which a prince decides that, as convention would have him marry a beautiful, charming princess, he will marry the graceless Yvonne instead. Soon, somehow, Yvonne’s shortcomings embarrass king, queen and courtiers by reminding them of their own sins and they decide to see her off by feeding her a fish full of bones. She chokes to death and Prince Philippe sees reason. This is supposed to be a hilarious parody of Shakespeare. I didn’t get it.

So for once I decided this was an opera to be heard, not seen, and preferably without paying any attention to the words; because Boesman’s music, as I’m sure I’ve said before, is no problem. It’s “resolutely” post-serial, by which I mean it has recognisable rhythms and forms and tunes – without being retrograde (in the non-serial sense of the word!) – it sparkles with Glockenspiels and celestas and xylophones, it sometimes, in its brightness, brings to mind Rimsky-Korsakov, it quotes and makes references and (unlike some contemporary opera I can think of) is undeniably theatrical, even cinematic. I probably said all that before, but can’t check (or lazily quote myself, as I sometimes like to do) as I’m writing this somewhere over the Ukraine, on the way to Asia. In brief, it’s something I’d gladly listen to at home (especially if conducted with a bit more vim and vigour).

And the cast was good. The faint “tearing” sound of Mireille Delunsch’s high notes is no trouble in a character role of this kind and her comic acting was as good as usual (remember Platée?). Paul Gay was particularly strong, so was Hannah Esther Minutillo; the rest of the cast was very sound (and it was interesting to hear Van Mechelen again in something very different after being struck by him as Sancho Panza last season)… What more is there to say about a team opera of this kind, if nobody lets the side down?

The production was impeccably directed but it made no particular sense of the play (nor did it raise many laughs, but I suspect any smiles Gombrowicz intended to provoke were sardonic ones anyway) and there was, to me, an odd mis-match between sets and characters. It was as if the world of Tim Burton – deep and richly coloured costumes in shiny materials, 40s cuts revisited by 80s bling; the women, in fancy, geometric wigs, a caricature of glamour; the men (apart from the king, an odd, nervy, “sporting” character in a red tracksuit with gold stripes and trainers at first; in singlet and shorts under an open dressing gown later) all modern dandies: “Gothic Baroque,” if such a thing might be said to exist – as if Tim Burton’s world, as I was saying, had invaded the bleak, unsettling one of Chirico: simple sets in shades of ochre and grey, with sometimes a staircase to the left, a large window to the right and, in the second tableau, a padded wall to the rear. Oddly, I was reminded of the blank, soulless and forlorn new “Mediterranean style” shopping centre I visited (and photographed) in Beijing last year; that too was like visiting a Chirico. And into this (in Brussels, not Beijing) flailed the graceless, straw-haired figure of Yvonne, a Balthus (ick) adolescent in baby-doll dress.

Buy the CD, not the DVD.

But having said that, as the directing was so good, it might be one of those productions that comes across better, with close-ups, on the screen than in the house. Rent it, maybe, to find out?


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