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New Opera in Brussels: Julie

Other Reviews:

Pierre Gervasoni, "Julie", mélodies aériennes et êtres mobiles (Le Monde, March 13)

Christian Merlin, Strindberg, musique mélancolique (Le Figaro, March 15)

Caroline Alexander, Mise en épure d’une tragédie (Webthea, March 16)
There is a new opera in production right now at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans, that theater's composer-in-residence for the past twenty years, has premiered his new opera, Julie, as adapted from Strindberg's play Miss Julie by Boesmans's Swiss librettist, Luc Bondy, who has also directed the production. (Mike Figgis made the very same play into a movie in 1999, with Saffron Burrows.) There were lots of articles, starting with an interview with the composer by Marie-Aude Roux (Philippe Boesmans dévoile ses recettes d'opéra, March 13) in Le Monde:
Are the opera's intentionally reduced musical forces—three vocal soloists and eighteen instrumentalists—linked to the play's suffocating nature?

Not exclusively. For me, what is most important is the narration and its understandability. That's why Julie and Jean—a mezzo soprano and baritone, respectively—have tessituras close to the spoken voice. So that everything is understood, I favored writing in the voices' middle register, reserving the high range for repeated phrases. As for the orchestra, it's more like a group of chamber soloists, where each player has a specific role. Some synthetic sounds come from the middle of the group, but there is nothing electronic. I believe that opera should use the natural sounds of opera.

Julie, Théâtre de la Monnaie, photograph by Ruth WalzIs that why opera has such an important place in your composition?

In the 1960s, postserialism gave us some beautiful works, whose presumed lack of expression was based on a certain bleak view of life. Deconstruction was where we were. Certain composers went too far into complexity and noise, but the music itself was dying. When you write an opera, you have to be sad or joyful, you have to tell a story. That aesthetic did not allow that. But something rose out of it. Peter Eötvös, for example, after having been a Stockhausen follower, took this new path in his opera Three Sisters [1997], based on Chekhov. I am looking for this path. A part of the avant-garde likes my operas, as does the larger audience. As for the rest, perhaps I betrayed something, and ideologues will surely label me postmodern, but music is not a combat. You write what you are, with your culture, and also in the context of music history.
The reviews are universally laudatory, both of the production and the cast. I will just quote one section from the review by Martine D. Mergeay (Les séductions fallacieuses de «Julie», March 9) for La Libre Belgique:
The staging of Luc Bondy, who also contributed the libretto, is in the mold of Richard Peduzzi's stylized and suggestive sets: a cold kitchen, high walls and murderhole-like windows, an abstract and contemporary aesthetic softened by sensory accessories (apples, flowers, pets) and 19th-century costumes. The lighting is superb, and the acting direction of a detailed realism, also helping to bring the characters closer to the viewer. As we see it, there are many good qualities to this production. Still, it lacks two elements that would make it more convincing: radicality (you might say "cruelty") and complexity (how sounds are "layered"). The mixture of Bondy's visual realism and Boesmans's sensual sound keep the piece in a climate of quotidian niceness, with no individual release toward something invisible (or ineffable), with no revelation, no pain. In this context, Julie's death, overdramatized, falls flat, and we do not understand the reason for giving such a luxuriant form to what does not manage to make an impression, no matter how moving.
Another reviewer called the decoration "pure Ikea," noting that Strindberg was Swedish. The photographs of the production are beautiful (although they do give the impression that the opera is taking place in an Ikea catalog). Performances continue through April 1.

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