Brussels’ royal opera house La Monnaie has reopened after a two-year long facelift. Composer-in-residence Philippe Boesmans had the privilege of inaugurating the concert hall with his 7th opera. Taking on the role of a contemporary Gepetto, Boesmans wrote the score for Joël Pommerat’s Pinocchio, a boastful and tyrannical puppet on a harrowing quest to become human.
“The moral of the story is this,” he tells us, “if you are prepared to go through life’s hardships and learn from them, you can become a true person. Not only in flesh, but true in the sense that you no longer lie, you tell the truth, you no longer fool yourself or others.”
“It’s amazing that we were able to open with such an opera, quite an initiation,” said Boesmans, adding: “I’ve been working at La Monnaie for a very long time, so it’s wonderful to be back! We are already immersed in a fairytale world before it starts. We had somehow forgotten this. So it’s like a reunion, like returning from a long journey and feeling at home again.”
The opera house itself hasn’t really changed that much. The seats may be brand new, but they are exact replicas of the old ones.
The work centred essentially on renovating the stage machinery, to open the door to collaborations with other opera houses around the world. This included installing hydraulic lifts in order to change sets during shows in silence, new air-conditioning, and LED lighting to bring down the electricity bill.
Co-productions are a way for the opera house to bring down costs, which was the case for this latest show. Created for the Aix-en-Provence festival in July, ‘Pinocchio’ will be staged in Dijon from October 6-10 and in Bordeaux in May 2018.
Likened to a Magic Flute for our times, Philippe Boesmans and Joël Pommerat’s Pinocchio has drawn enthusiastic praise both in Aix-en-Provence and in Brussels.
The composer worked together with Pommerat to transform his successful 2008 play, based on Carlo Collodi’s famous tale, into a libretto. The result is a recitative opera closer to sung theatre, which even includes several spoken parts.
French baritone Stéphane Degout delivers an impressive performance, moving easily between song and declamation in his various roles as director of the troupe, con artist, murderer and circus director.
French mezzo-soprano Chloé Briot is also outstanding as Pinocchio. “To be honest,” she says, “singing music written by Philippe Boesmans is very comfortable. I never have to give it any thought when I’m singing his scores. It’s like wearing a nice pair of slippers. This allows me to completely focus on the acting.”
Conductor Patrick Davin is a long-time collaborator of Philippe Boesmans. “What’s great with him is that you can listen to just five seconds of his music and you know it’s Philippe Boesmans!,” he exclaims. He has nothing but praise for the composer’s ability to listen and his kindness towards the singers. “All composers are not like him, some are terrifying because they project their own fears.”
The two worked hand-in-hand: “It’s great when you can talk things through with a composer before the performance, to find out what his intention was, where his ideas came from, because it sometimes helps you find the solution,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if Verdi came along and tapped you on the shoulder, and said, ‘Well done, great job!”
It took Philippe Boesmans two years to compose the score for Pinocchio. “I am a very slow composer,” he says with a smile. “When writing an opera, you need to be very, very lucid but also sensitive. You need to be lucid because there’s a lot going on: you need to think about all the instruments, the singers, the acting – will it be tight, will they have enough time to do this or that…”
An eight opera is on the cards. In the meantime, he is composing chamber music “to get some rest”. Asked whether he plans on retiring, he replies:
“I wonder what I would do if I no longer composed music. If I don’t compose, I get depressed,” he says, before adding with a laugh, “and that’s not the case yet!”
Photo: Boesmans' Pinocchio at La Monnaie © Hofmann
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