Alain Platel - C(h)oeurs

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday September 1 2013

Conductor: Marc Piollet. Concept, production and sets: Alain Platel. Lighting: Carlo Bourguignon. Costumes: Dorine Demuynck. Additional music: Steven Prengels. Coro Intermezzo - Teatro Real Madrid. C de la B dance company. La Monnaie orchestra.

Giuseppe Verdi
  • Messa da Requiem (Dies Irae, Tuba mirum, Agnus Dei, Libera me)
  • Nabucco (Va pensiero)
  • Macbeth (Patria oppressa!)
  • La Traviata (Parigi, o cara, Preludio Atto III, Preludio Atto I)
Richard Wagner
  • Lohengrin (Vorspiel, Heil! König Heinrich!)
  • Tannhäuser (Pilger-Chor, O du, mein holder Abendstern)
  • Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Wach auf!, Vorspiel 3. Aufzug)

La Monnaie’s 2013-2014 season opened, not with an opera, but with C(h)oeurs, a hybrid work commissioned by Gerard Mortier for Madrid. As my intention, with these write-ups, is to give impressions of operas, as an ordinary, amateur opera-goer, and as this was definitely not one, I’ve been wondering what to write about it, hence the delay. I’ll try to describe it.

There was no set as such. The floor was streaky parquet, the sides and rear of the stage were curtained with translucent vertical blinds, making entries and exits easy, and there were steps up at the rear.

There were ten dancers, male and female, in red and white. They were physically hard-worked: contorted, convulsed, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed, constantly in tension… Sometimes their mouths were fixed in a silent scream; sometimes, far from silent, they wailed; sometimes, the mouth was stopped with a fist. Sometimes, in slow motion, they fought; sometimes, in slow motion, they made love; sometimes, they trembled epileptically.

There were, from time to time, famous Wagner and Verdi excerpts. But the chorus of the Teatro Real were not just there to sing. Dressed in drab day-to-day clothes, they enjoyed themselves (so I imagined) marching round, stamping their feet, chanting, writing contemporary-issue keywords on cardboard, demonstrating ("indignado"- not Gangnam - style), and calling out their names, one by one, at the stage apron.

As well as live playing and singing, there were modern sounds and vintage opera recordings; there were also (amplified) readings from Marguerite Duras, on the simplistic nature of communism, fascism, racism and other themes. The reader ended many sentences with an exasperating “huh?” that was not, I guess, in Duras’s original.

The intention, it seemed, was to raise various questions or issues. To try to sort them out afterwards, I resorted, I admit, to the programme notes and La Monnaie’s magazine and web site. Tension between the individual and the crowd, herd mentality and, according to an interview with Alain Platel, “the dangerous beauty" of a group. National identity faced with globalisation. Life and survival. The political and the existential. The body public and the private body (and its fragility - people, both dancers and chorus-members, were sometimes naked). Gender (a couple of the male dancers were in dresses). Old revolutions (1848), the role of Verdi and Wagner as political and/or artistic “revolutionaries”, and new aspirations to freedom: “Occupy la Monnaie” was one headline I saw on the web, but of course the so-called “Arab Spring” is another possible reference. Romantic love as handled in old operas and as perceived by today’s public. And more.

The reception in Madrid in 2012 was, so I read, fairly stormy. The Brussels regulars are less demonstrative, but the show was greeted by boos as well as cheers, even on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. I don’t feel able to judge. I imagine if you’re both receptive and used to contemporary dance, your perception of the show would be different. To me, its ambitions to put across social and/or political messages were only met at about the level (i.e. “O” level) of the obvious intellectual pun (on hearts and choruses in French) in the title, C(h)oeurs. It was laboured and pretentious, yet as the list (of the “including but not limited to” kind American lawyers are fond of) of issues above implies, unclear in its intentions. To a fan of contemporary dance, painfully pulling on underpants or long johns while severely hampered by palsied trembling may make a powerful image; the rest of us risk laughing alound.

The opera excerpts were not particularly well performed - bloodless rather than bleeding chunks. The chorus quite often lost sight of the conductor, the unlucky soprano singled out to deal with Verdi's “Libera Me” wasn’t really up to it, and the orchestra sounded bored, which is not surprising considering the little there was to play and long waits between. Verdi and Wagner were relegated to a secondary, supporting role, the compilation of greatest hits providing a soundtrack of unconvincing relevance.

Personally, I soon lost interest and less than two hours came to seem a long time.

[Also reviewed on Il Giardino di Armida, whose taste in photos is excellent.]

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