De Munt/La Monnaie season 2015/2016

MM_Home_EM_VruchtvleesjpgAn excellent 2015/2016 season was recently presented at De Munt/La Monnaie with a balanced choice in styles and good casts. The season starts off with a belcanto gem by Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore, under the direction of Damiano Michieletto, whom I admire much, and conducted by Thomas Rösner, who, if my memory serves me right, I enjoyed hearing in a lively Cosi fan tutte in Winterthur two years ago. The loving couple, Olga Peretyatko and Dmitry Korchak, are belcanto experts and the evening promises, at least on paper, to be a success.After L’elisir d’amore the operahouse will close to undergo renovation works.

Powder her face is an appreciated new entry. Composed in 1995 by Thomas Ades on a libretto by Philip Hensher, it tells the story of the “dirty duchess”  (I refer to the guardians article for details Musically it is an individual mix of different styles written for a small orchestra with a large  percussion section.

I am especially happy about the choice of La Vestale by Gaspare Spontini. Although an Italian, he perfectly merged the French declamatory and the Italian style, writing a milestone in French music which soon was extremely successful also outside France. Performed only rarely, Maria Callas was one of the great Giulias.

The Christmas spirit is brought by Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck, which is also a lovely opera. Pity it is given at the Bozar in a semi-staged version.

To be sung was created in 1994 on music by Pascal Dusapin, a composer who will present a world creation in April this year in De Munt/La Monnaie (Penthesilea). I am not fan of Dusapin and I would have preferred any of the cancelled proposals (Some of the pages in the program are grayed out, showing that these operas had to be cut due to the government’s financial change in subsidy policy. These opera’s are Die Dreigroschenoper by Weill, L’incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi and Die tote Stadt by Erich Korngold.

A Russian is also present this year, and a rare surprise with that, with Anton Rubinstein’s The demon. One of the last Russian Romantics, Rubinstein was mainly known as pianist and The demon, his only opera, has become a rarity. Such a pity it is a concert version. Another concert version is presented with another Italian, this time a verismo opera (the reason for the concert version is, according to the program, that it “is difficult to present onstage”…): Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Not heard very often in these latitudes. A welcome composition. Pity again, it is in concert form (Why are the Dusapins never in concert form?)

A florian_leopold_gassmannreal jewel is L’opera seria by Florian Leopold Gassmann; After having heard this opera in 1997 in Innsbruck under the direction of Rene Jacobs, I am extremely happy to see it again in Brussels. The plot is a mockery of opera habits in the 18th century, an opera in the opera, where an opera troup is rehearsing an opera seria, with its whimsical singers, it’s egomaniac dancers, its greedy impresari.

An original, and welcome, choice is Berlioz’s Beatrice et Benedicte, a far too rarely performed opera: “Je fis…l’opéra-comique Beatrix et Benedict (!). Il fut joué avec un grand succsès et sous ma direction, sur le nouveau théâtre de Bade, le 9 août 1862” writes Berlioz in his autobiography.

Mozart is always welcome, and although Mitridate, re di Ponto was given with Carsen’s direction in 2007, the opera, written by a 14-year old Mozart, will be a treat seen the chosen cast which includes Lenneke Ruiten, Myrtò Papatanasiu and the excellent Michael Spyres and Simona Saturova under the direction of Christophe Rousset.

The umpteenth world creation for the Munt/Monnaie is Frankenstein by Mark Grey. The idea came from La fura dels Baus, who will also take care of the direction, which, personally, is the reason to see the opera.

Picture1However, I can not refrain from some additional comments.

First-Belgium is a small country with 3 opera institutions. From Brussels, opera lovers travel to Gent or Antwerp and Liege. Why they sometimes give the same opera’s within the same season or the same year is a mystery to me. Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni are in the 2014/2015 season at Vlaanders Opera  while both operas were also given in the years 2013/2014 in Brussels. And this year we have L’elisir d’amore, in June in Liege and in September in Brussels.

Another thought I would like to share is about the Cirque Royal, a highly inappropriate venue for operas. The theatre is round and this poses problems on where to put the orchestra. Furthermore the singers sing in any direction, which results in a very peculiar sound. This is partially due to the renovation works and Peter de Caluwe “…takes this opportunity…to play with locations…matching them with the appropriate projects”. I hope he takes this opportunity only during the renovation works.

However, I must congratulate the Munt/Monnaie for an overall marvelous season, varied and with many rarities to look forward to. The absence of the various Joosten, Tcherniakov et similia  is also reassuring. The chief conductor Ludovic Morlot has resigned at the end of December. I am not sure this is such good news. Issues between the conductor the orchestra are a recurring thing and the orchestra could benefit (read: improve) from a stable baton. The concerts are also interesting and varied. These include recitals by Anna Caterina Antonacci, Simon Keenlyside, Matthias Goerne and Christophe Prégardien and concerts such as the Grande Messe de morts by Berlioz,


Cosi fan tutte @ De Munt/La Monnaie in Brussels

The plot of Cosi fan tutte seems quite frivolous: Two young ferrarese ladies living in Naples, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, each have a lover, Fiordiligi is with Guglielmo and Dorabella is with Ferrando. The two men, instigated by the cynical bachelor Don Alfonso, pretend to leave for war to prove the girls’ (they are 15 years old) infidelity. Despina, the housemaid, does not take that very seriously, and advises the girls to get new lovers. After Guglielmo and Ferrando left for war, they come back dressed as Albanians, and try to woo the other one’s girlfriend. By the end of the opera they succeed so well that a double marriage is planned, Fiordiligi marries Ferrando and Dorabella marries Guglielmo. Just after signing the contract a military drum is heard announcing Ferrando and Guglielmo coming back from the battlefield. Off go the two Albanians, back come Ferrando and Guglielmo, only to realize what happened and see the marriage contract. Despina is revealed to be the notary, and the sisters realize they have been deceived. All is ultimately forgiven, as the entire group praises the ability to accept life’s good times.

imagesCALCHR56The importance of the text for Haneke is clear from the beginning (although the silences in the recitatives last a bit too long to fully keep the interest in 3h and 40min of opera). His Cosi fan tutte is not frivolous at all. Haneke strips the opera from all the comic parts. If for Da Ponte the dramma was giocoso, for Haneke, Despina is not the silly little chambermaid (she usually is the funny one). All the things the public typically loughs about are never funny as she communicates everything very seriously. A melancholic and sad aura hangs over the whole duration of the opera. By giving Despina a bitter and unhappy guise, one can only imagine what she went through in her life.

In Haneke’s interpretation the two men are not overly dressed-up as Albanians and in Act II they are well recognizable as the original lovers. One starts to wonder whether it’s not the girls making a fool of the men. Do they know? Did they always find the other one more attractive? There are, I believe, 2 moving strikes in Haneke’s setting: When the “wrong” couples are about to marry, Dorabella touches Ferrando’s hand (her old lover), and looks at him as if to say “I still miss you, you know…?”. And Haneke’s end is the only end which makes sense: When, at the very end, the two original couples are reunited, it is clear that nothing will be the same again (how can it be, after they were able to show so strong emotions for another person in such a short time). At the very end Fiordiligi runs from his Guglielmo into Ferrando’s arms to get a last hug. Singing the last few bars, all are hand in hand pulling at each other and on the last chord they all let go as if the chain which linked them all together was too weak. (Even Mozart, one could think, suggests that the “wrong” couples should be together, as Fiordiligi and Ferrando both sing a higher tessitura, and Dorabella and Guglielmo both a lower ones)


Unfortunately the singers are not up to Haneke’s standards. They are unable to pronounce the text in an understandable way. In fact, the recitatives, if dramatized by Haneke, are completely boring when pronounced by the singers. Acting and musical qualities vary from singer to singer. Fiordiligi and Dorabella are the two adolescents who sing touchingly and act youthfully. One wishes Anett Fritsch (Fiordiligi) didn’t save herself mainly for her two big aria’s (one in act I Come scoglio and one in act II Per pietà ben mio perdona) but overall she gave a positive impression. Her newly acquired Albanian lover is Juan Francisco Gatell. This tenor is a tad nasal but does the job. The other male lover Andreas Wolf acts and sings averagely with a not very appealing timbre. Kerstin Avemo’s Despina has good high notes, lacks the middle and lower register but interprets well the sadness and bitterness imposed by Haneke. And Don Alfonso never seems to quite understand what he is singing. And what a pain the learning of the Italian text must have been. The effort he has to put into everything he pronounces is palpable. As a singer he is very mediocre.

The single-set by Christoph Kanter is beautiful: A modern interior of a probably 17th century villa overlooking the bay. Modern dresses are mixed with 18th century ones.

Morlot is the new musical director of the Munt/Monnaie. He takes this production over from Cambreling in Madrid. Is it difficult to direct an opera directed and set by somebody else and created for another theatre? I don’t know, but what Morlot is totally incapable of is to bring a minimum of life into the opera. Morlot’s direction is monotonous and insipid. Even if he wanted to follow Haneke’s drift, he is totally unable to make the instruments sing. The accompaniment is a flat routine, sounding interminable and lifeless even compared to the recordings of the 50’s. The singers’ flaws is one thing, they are young, they will learn. But the director is meant to do more than just to stir the polenta-pot. The orchestra plays, as always with a mediocre director, its usual standard.

Music direction – Ludovic Morlot, Director – Michael Haneke, Set design – Christoph Kanter, Costumes – Moidele Bickel, Fiordiligi – Anett Fritsch, Dorabella – Paola Gardina, Guglielmo – Andreas Wolf, Ferrando – Juan Francisco Gatell, Despina – Kerstin Avemo, Don Alfonso – William Shimell, Orchestra and Chorus of De Munt, 23 May 2013