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25.7.05

Summer Opera: Julie in Aix-en-Provence

I mentioned Philippe Boesmans's new opera, Julie, a few months ago (New Opera in Brussels: Julie, March 24), when it was premiered at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. It has just received its second set of performances, from July 8 to 22, at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. The big news at Aix this year was Così Fan Tutte, which modernist avatar Patrice Chéreau came out of retirement to direct. Perhaps not surprisingly, the audiences seemed to prefer Julie, as Alan Riding recounts in his article (Modern opera usurps Mozart in Aix, July 19) on the festival for the New York Times:

Still more surprising, Philippe Boesmans's "Julie" has demonstrated that an opera written in 2005 can appeal to audiences as well as critics. Boesmans, a 69-year-old Belgian composer, has done it before. His previous operas, "Reigen" (1993) and "Wintermärchen" (1999), reflecting Boesmans's move away from atonal music, were also well received and have had new productions. His aim, he explains in a program interview, is to reconnect music to emotions through narrative. "The beauty of some contemporary music often resides in a search for light," he says, "but it is divorced from human feelings. An opera must be based on the alternation of emotions and on an interplay of tension and release from tension." [...]

[Librettist Luc] Bondy, who also wrote the librettos for "Reigen" and "Wintermarchen" and directs this first production of "Julie," said that he kept this opera to 75 minutes because "our ears are not yet completely acclimatized to contemporary music, and they continue to seek harmonies which nevertheless disappeared some 70 years ago." Yet with Ono again conducting the Orchestre de Chambre de la Monnaie, Boesmans's music is far friendlier than most contemporary music: "a great pleasure for listeners," as Jean-Louis Validire wrote in Le Figaro. Ono said, "'Julie' is a perfect example of fusion between text and music, which is the essence of a successful opera." Indeed, while the score seems designed to advance the increasingly disturbing narrative, there is considerable lyricism in the mezzo-soprano role of Julie (Tove Dahlberg and Malena Ernman, alternate), the baritone role of Jean (Davide Damiani and and Garry Magee) and the coloratura soprano role of Kristin (Hendrickje Van Kerckhove and Kerstin Avemo).
For another perspective, we go to Renaud Machart who reviewed the opera (A Aix-en-Provence, "Julie" va droit et vite vers son issue fatale, July 10) for Le Monde (my translation):
Philippe Boesmans (b. 1936) has had the advantage of being composer-in-residence at the Monnaie for more than 20 years. There he has developed five works that have all made a mark: La Passion de Gilles (on the life of Gilles de Rais) in 1983; a new orchestration of Claudio Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea in 1988; Reigen, after Arthur Schnitzler's Round Dance, in 1993; Wintermärchen, on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, in 1999; and this Julie in 2005. As an added luxury to this privileged residency, Boesmans has collaborated almost exclusively with the great Swiss director Luc Bondy, who is also the librettist for Reigen, Wintermärchen, and Julie. Wintermärchen was a splendid and extreme prodigality of sound. Recorded immediately on disc, by Deutsche Grammophon, and mounted subsequently in many theaters, this music that managed a miraculous stylistic "impurity" that was perfectly balanced quickly became a classic work of the turn of the century. The only work to achieve the same degree of success since has been Peter Eötvös's Angels in America, after the play by Tony Kushner.
The play has been boiled down to about seventy minutes of music, according to Machart, "a musical fabric much tighter and more intricate than that of Wintermärchen . . . neither musical dialogue nor sung speech, but a clever midway between natural speech rhythms and the artifice of an ornament, madrigalesque song." These musical forces have just made a recording of the work, on the Cyprès label (1 CD CYP4626).

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