It’s official: the daring, magic and beauty that light up the stage of Brussels’ opera house night after night earn top honours
Opera house of the year! That’s the title recently bestowed upon Brussels’ Royal Opera La Monnaie by the world’s leading opera magazine, Opernwelt. It’s like winning an Oscar, as La Monnaie’s director Peter de Caluwe jubilantly exclaimed when he heard the news, which was made all the sweeter by being compounded with the award for best production. That honour went to Olivier Py’s staging of Meyerbeer’s opera Les Huguenots, which premièred at La Monnaie last June.
An international jury of 50 critics have a say in who gets Opernwelt’s coveted annual award. Several members of this year’s panel have told me that the choice of La Monnaie was unanimous. They praised the team spirit, the choice of conductors, stage directors and singers, and the perfect planning and execution. « No doubt about it, » reads their tribute, « under Peter de Caluwe’s leadership, the Théâtre de la Monnaie has reached a peak in our time and in its rich history ». What makes the award all the more significant is that this is the first time the prize has been awarded to an opera house outsidethe German-speaking world.
De Caluwe, 48, has been general manager of La Monnaie since 2007. When congratulated, he hastens to credit his predecessors’ achievements. Gerard Mortier, who now heads the Teatro Real in Madrid, pioneered innovative productions of the mainstream repertoire, from Mozart to Verdi ; and Bernard Foccroulle, currently in charge of the Festival of Aix-en-Provence, hired the brilliant and young conductor Antonio Pappano as music director (Pappano is now music director of the Covent Garden opera in London) and brought in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s dance company Rosas as artists-in-residence. Foccroulle also commissioned new operas from leading Belgian composers such as Philippe Boesmans and Benoît Mernier.
De Caluwe worked at La Monnaie with Mortier in the mid-1980s. From that experience, he tells me, «I learned how important it is to develop a team spirit in an opera house. When we embark on a new production, all departments – from chorus members to stage hands – must have the feeling that we are in the adventure together. »
De Caluwe’s willingness to take risks is perfectly illustrated by his choice of stage directors. In March 2009, he invited the cutting-edge theatre company La Fura dels Baus to produce Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, a notoriously difficult opera to stage. I suspect that at the time, the Monnaie team must have felt unsure about the prospect of collaborating with such a resolutely avant-garde group. But as it turned out, the production was a huge popular and critical success. I confess that I had never seen a convincing performance of the work until I saw theirs, which won me over. And so when de Caluwe announced that La Fura would be returning this autumn to stage George Enescu’s Œdipe, his colleagues’ reaction was a mixture of delight and impatience to get started.
Œdipe is typical of de Caluwe’s refreshingly unconventional programme planning. Although the four-acter is considered a masterpiece of 2Oth-century music, it has rarely been performed even in Enescu’s native Romania since its Paris première in 1936. The version created last month by La Fura dels Baus, with its sets more evocative of ecological disaster than of ancient Greece, was an eye-opener. Producer Alex Ollé saw a parallel between the spreading of the plague in legendary Thebes and the tide of red, toxic mud that swept over a region west of Budapest in October 2010. Suddenly, Enescu’s opera appeared relevant to the present day. De Caluwe scored an even more astonishing coup with Romeo Castellucci’s production of Parsifal. The Italian theatre director and set designer had never staged an opera before and came up with a radically new interpretation of Wagner’s hallowed work in which all the pseudo-religious baggage was thrown overboard.
Each of the three acts was based on a breathtaking visual concept. The Knights of the Holy Grail in the first part were a bunch of frightened hunters lost in a primeval forest. Kundry’s attempted seduction of Parsifal in the second act took place in a blindingly white psychiatric clinic amid scenes of Japanese-style bondage. The greatest shock came in the last scene : far from being hailed as a redeemer, Parsifal was just one in a crowd facing the public and marching on a moving walkway. When the curtain fell there was a moment of total silence, then the audience erupted in wild applause.
Familiar classics such as La Bohème have also been given a welcome facelift, and in this regard, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s stagings deserve a special mention. The Polish artist has presented a vigorously updated version of Verdi’s Macbeth, with uniformed generals in a high-tech war room, and in Cherubini’s Medea he introduced a contemporary subtext of intercultural tensions. Die-hard operagoers may sometimes wince, but the new approach fostered by the Monnaie has overwhelmingly found acceptance in Brussels. We are now in mid-season, and the upcoming productions look exciting indeed. Next month, French stage director Laurent Pelly will put a fresh spin on Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon, an all-time favourite since its 1899 première in Paris. After seeing Flemish director Guy Joosten’s spine-chilling staging of Richard Strauss’s Elektra at La Monnaie in 2010, I can hardly wait to discover his portrayal of Strauss’s Salome. In April, Ghent-born René Jacobs, in my view the supreme interpreter of 18th-century opera, conducts Handel’s spectacular Orlando, with staging by Pierre Audi.
Unlike many other European opera houses, La Monnaie has long championed contemporary dance. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s company Rosas continues to enjoy high visibility there (her new work Cesena has just made its Belgian debut at La Monnaie), and Antwerp-based dancer and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui found an early supporter in de Caluwe, who remains an avid admirer of his work. Cherkaoui’s Three Duets will première at La Monnaie this coming March. Karlsruhe-born Sasha Waltz, another inspirational choreographer, will present in June a work for 24 dancers based on Edgard Varèse’s volcanic score Arcana.
Also this spring, legendary conductor Pierre Boulez will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra on two successive evenings. A radical composer who has mellowed in recent years, the Frenchman, who is 86, is revered for his laser-like precision and tireless promotion of 2Oth-century music. To accommodate the very large audiences that are expected, the concerts will be held in Bozar’s larger facility, but the occasion is co-produced by La Monnaie.
Speaking of conductors, this January, Ludovic Morlot, 37, will take over as chief conductor of La Monnaie’s orchestra. The Lyons-born musician’s arrival is eagerly anticipated, and all the moreso since the search for the right musician to fill the position has lasted three years. The very first time Morlot took up his baton at La Monnaie, the orchestra members knew they had found what they were looking for, and his limited experience conducting opera doesn’t faze them in the least.