Berlioz - Béatrice et Bénédict

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday April 3 2016

Conductor: Samuel Jean. Production: Richard Brunel. Sets: Anouk Dell'Aiera. Costumes: Claire Risterucci. Lighting: Laurent Castaingt. Don Pedro: Frédéric Caton. Claudio: Etienne Dupuis. Bénédict: Julien Dran. Don Juan: Sébastien Dutrieux. Léonato: Pierre Barrat. Héro: Sophie Karthäuser. Béatrice: Michèle Losier. Samarone: Lionel Lhote. Ursule: Eve-Maud Hubeaux. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

I like directors who set you thinking, which is why Tcherniakov and Warlikowski are favourites. I'm less keen when a director decides to "improve" a work by rewriting and reordering it to suit his own ideas.

Richard Brunel seems to have found Béatrice et Bénédict a bit too frothy and fun, and decided it should be grimmer and that Samarone should play a bigger, blacker role. It had never occurred to me before, though it now seems obvious, that this is easy to do when a work has spoken dialogues. You can change the plot without composing new music - you just move it around, as on Sunday. As I didn't know the piece, with a defter touch on Brunel's part I might not have noticed. But I sensed something was wrong as this "new version" wavered awkwardly from light-hearted to heavy-handed, and it was clear once Héro was denounced as a two-timer by Samarone, called a slut and a whore and spat on by her lover, and in the end, when it was all cleared up, still refused to marry him, that the reworking was severe.

Visually, the show was less startling. There was a single, multi-purpose set and a single set of multi-purpose props. At the start we were perhaps in church or in a village square. There was a spiral staircase on the left up to a pulpit that later doubled as a balcony. At the rear was a war-memorial wall of dead soldiers's photos that the living soldiers burst through in modern camouflage with guns (with Brussels still in shock after suicide bombings in March, we had been warned about this in advance by management). Wardrobes that at first were linen cupboards became soldiers' lockers, and were later used for hiding in and eavesdropping from before lying down and turning into a banqueting table. Washtubs became bathtubs as the soldiers stripped to their boxers to soap down. ("This being La Monnaie," said a friend after, "it's a wonder they kept anything on at all.") Mattresses lay around singly or in piles. As the wedding approached, Héro stepped unexpectedly off the pulpit-balcony into thin air on wires and, as she alighted, continuing the theme of reuse, her long, white train became the tablecloth.

The costumes told us the setting was vaguely post-war. The acting was as theatrically sound as if this had been a spoken play. The lighting was mostly amber, presumably with Sicilian sunshine in mind.

We had a very good ensemble cast in which the women shone and Sophie K. stood out in particular. There were some unusually beautiful duets and ensembles, despite the fact that the director's determination to import grimness clashed with the tone of the score. The orchestra was on form, the chorus less so I thought: I've known them sound more sure of themselves. But it must have been hot up there...

La Monnaie's main house is under renovation, so a temporary "Palais de la Monnaie" has been erected, a modern, tent-like industrial hangar among old warehouses in Brussels' docks. Management seem more optimistic about how long this solution will be needed than our usherette, who is convinced it will last all next season. This is bad news. The "tent" offers no sound insulation whatever (in quiet moments you could actually hear birds cheeping on the roof) and is on the flight path planes follow (along the canal) to land at Zaventem. As the airport only opened on Sunday after the bombs, there were relatively few flights; but in future there will be plenty - not to mention children playing and police or ambulance sirens passing by, and the constant noise, inside, of blowers.

Sunday also turned warm. The sun on the tent made it uncomfortably hot inside, and this was just early April. And as, in the temporary structure, there are no balconies, people who usually have balcony seats find themselves too far away to see who is singing at any point. I must say I am now looking forward to Mitridate even less than I normally would...


  1. Thank you for this! We are having Béatrice et Bénédict next October (the 'season' here is two performances of each of four operas). I hope there is no 'grimness'.


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