Au monde, La Monnaie, Brussels – review

Eight people drift in and out of a sepulchral room, seven members of a now dysfunctional family which has made its money from the iron industry, and a “foreign woman”, possibly the mistress of one of the men, who harangues the others in cod Basque.

Philippe Boesmans’ new opera is a team effort with Joël Pommerat, who has adapted his play to exploit its operatic possibilities. Pommerat also directs proceedings with cool aplomb. The text, a blend of Three Sisters and Pelléas et Mélisande, but closer to Maeterlinck than Chekhov to these ears, is intentionally enigmatic. Sentences are left unfinished, issues undecided. In this oppressive, melancholic huis clos with its nagging whiff of incest, communication is patchy at best. The patriarch, one foot in senility, wants to designate his son Ori as his successor despite a degenerative eye complaint everyone avoids talking about. By the time he is wearing giveaway dark glasses, the firm appears to be falling under the control of the husband of the second sister. So much for the cohesion of blood relations.

Boesmans accompanies these subtle shifts with his most lyrical score to date. Never one to kowtow to contemporary music strictures, this is a composer in his late seventies out to enjoy himself. Swathes of Au monde sound like Richard Strauss and might have seemed conservative in the 1940s. Elsewhere, the mood flirts with film music, an impression reinforced by the interludes when the foreign woman mimes to a baritone singing the Sinatra hit “My Way”. This accessibility is arguably the compromise a modern opera has to make if it is to enjoy a life after a first performance.

Patrick Davin conducts with precision and tact and Boesmans’ melodious line shows off the voices in a top-notch cast, led by Patricia Petibon (the second sister) who has moved from high-wire pyrotechnics to become France’s most accomplished singing actress. Fflur Wyn as the youngest sister and Yann Beuron as the son-in-law are both excellent. Stéphane Degout (Ori), one of the best baritones on the circuit today, deserves our appreciation for accepting an important but non-starring role.

Intendant Peter de Caluwe gave a post-performance speech to honour first, Boesmans and then a retiring financial controller. The sense of family at La Monnaie is clearly more developed than in Pommerat’s play.

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