La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday March 20 2011
Conductor: John Nelson. Production: Karl-Ernst Herrmann, Ursel Herrmann. Sets, costumes and lighting. Don Anchise, podestà di Lagonero: Jeffrey Francis. La Marchesa Violante Onesti (Sandrina): Sandrine Piau. Il Contino Belfiore: Jeremy Ovenden. Arminda: Henriette Bonde-Hansen. Il cavaliere Ramiro: Stella Doufexis. Serpetta: Katerina Knežíková. Roberto (Nardo): Adam Plachetka. ...: Mireille Mossé. Orchestra of la Monnaie.
I don’t deny for a moment that Mozart was one of the greatest composers of all time, but he composed in a period that doesn’t appeal to me much. So the idea of young Mozart (I won’t actually say “second-rate” for fear of getting shouted down) in a 20-year old production had me, once again, fearing the worst. It turned out, however, that the Hermanns had completely revamped their staging: it was fresh as a daisy and outstandingly good, all that an outstanding production should be: intelligent, handsome, rich in detail and rehearsed to perfection, with an excellent cast to boot. A classic Monnaie production, in other words, and a reminder of how consistently good Brussels has been since at least the 80s and Mortier.
With a cast so strong (with the exception of Stella Doufexis’ rather woozy Ramiro) you shouldn’t really single anyone out. But Sandrine Piau is now at her peak: a seasoned artist, sure of her notes and her style, definitely the star of the show (and at La Monnaie, a reasonably-sized house with decent acoustics, unusually audible); Henriette Bonde-Hansen is both visually glamorous and vocally impressive; Jeremy Ovenden is the ever-welcome (well, most of the time) elegant English tenor; and Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka is definitely one to watch – according to his website “From the season 2010/2011 he will become a member of Wiener Staatsoper” : a round, velvety but commanding voice and great charm and presence: tall, dark and handsome, as the saying goes. As you might expect, under John Nelson, the orchestra was at its best and the score bounced along.
The production is part easy, part impossible to describe.
The easy part is the set, costumes and lighting. The action took place in a coppice of tall, slender silver birches with leafy crowns, lined up six across and five deep on a peninsula of pale wooden parquet ending, at the rear, at a black lake (Lagonero, I suppose) and curving, white walls beyond. The pale boards continued round the edge of the pit, never a happy idea at La Monnaie where, when out in front, the singers become inaudible. There were some cane or other chairs dotted around, and a fridge topped with a bottle or two and a slice of water melon: a fairly relaxed garden, basking in beautiful, pale, zenithal summer sunlight, dappling the boards with leafy shade. The overall colour scheme: black, white, grey and various shades from beige to cream. Sometimes there were white sheets hung out to dry. People arrived in a slick little white boat gliding silently round the peninsula on the black waters.
The costumes were chic: Arminda had a figure-hugging “pony” (or, less flatteringly, “cow”) print cocktail dress in white with black patches, a huge, matching hat and stilettos; the Contino was equally dressy, in morning gear suited to a wedding; Sandrina, once she’d slipped, at the start, out of her fur-collared coat and high-heeled shoes, was in crisp linens and a broad-brimmed straw hat, very much more like a Parisienne holidaying in the country than an actual gardener; Nardo put on working Bermudas, an apron and a bob hat, but kept his patent dress shoes and sock-suspenders.
The action (which is undeniably but agreeably mad) was initiated, then (sometimes literally) prodded along by a mischievous and sometimes malicious dwarf in tails who emerged, before the music started, from a hole in the floor.
The impossible part is to describe all the detail. I didn’t mention that, of all the tall, slender birches in the wood, just one was at 45 degrees. But after a storm in act 2, when the lighting went dark and the whole coppice swayed from side to side in impressive unison, a single tree remained vertical. That’s just one example from a production that was full of them, from a little snail climbing (at snail’s pace) up the proscenium all afternoon (I wouldn’t have noticed had I not read about in advance) to the charming and funny way, when the Contino came bounding up like an excited puppy to present a rose to his betrothed, all the petals dropped off. The acting (including the comic stuff: Nardo imitating a French lover by simply ruffling his hair, sticking a cigarette in his mouth and slouching...) was spotless, not one move out of place: absolute professionalism and, as I already said, a Monnaie classic if ever there was one. I haven’t checked if, being 20 years old, it’s already on DVD; I think not, and as there are already several DVD versions of this presumably hard-to-sell work (it isn’t, after all, Carmen or La Bohème) this may not make it. But if it does, with these singers, it will be a treasure for truer Mozart lovers than me.
When buying our train tickets three months before we didn’t know the show would go on for over four hours, so in this case we really had to leave at the (second) interval. Not entirely without regrets; but then, agreeably mad though it be, the work is long for what it is, so I think two acts was enough.