La Dispute, La Monnaie, Brussels

Who is more prone to infidelity – man or woman? This is the theme of Benoît Mernier’s new opera, his second after Frühlings Erwachen. Largely based on Pierre de Marivaux’s 1744 play, it is a delicious romp starring four Rousseauesque innocents who discover love and temptation while the fractious couple of a philandering Prince and his jealous consort Hermiane look on for inspiration.

The central question, of course, remains unanswered, as do our queries on Mernier’s real musical personality. His score for this mix of Così fan tutte and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream adopts the latter’s glissandi strings, is steeped in Debussy, imitates Bartók (particularly in hauntingly beautiful night music for the woodwinds) and looks to Berg for lyrical vocal expression.

Like Britten, Mernier can resort to pastiche – here an elegant baroque duo that Rameau could have written – but, significantly, he lingers well beyond the point of quotation as if keen to fill time with appealing music. For my taste, he also uses a little too much spoken dialogue, so that the work sounds more like a musical play than an opera. No matter: he may not have written an original, groundbreaking work – who in living memory has? – but his superb craftsmanship delivers a charming, marketable product, a generally uplifting fusion of music and theatre. That in itself is quite an achievement when so many new operas sorely test audience endurance before ending up on the shelf after one token revival.

The production, from veterans Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann, is a vintage display of their talents and their first attempt at a new opera. It comes with their trademark dated aesthetics – a frightful Astroturf lawn and costuming of dubious taste – but each personality is sharply honed and everyone seems in total control of their space. Few premieres look this well-rehearsed.

The young quartet of French singers – Julie Mathevet, Albane Carrère, Cyrille Dubois and Guillaume Andrieux – is fresh and footsure, equally at home in speech and song. Stéphane Degout as the prince and Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Hermiane act and sing with authority, and Dominique Visse more than makes up for his ailing countertenor voice with a commanding portrayal of Amour in crumpled black linen tailleur and severe Louise Brooks bob. Patrick Davin conducts with his usual sensitivity and discipline.

This hybrid work – call it compromise opera – runs for two hours without an interval (arguably 30 minutes too long) but its enthusiastic reception at curtain call suggests a bright future.

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