La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

The 8.5 operas

of Philippe Boesmans

Reading time
7 min.

On purge bébé ! will be opera number 8.5 for Philippe Boesmans at La Monnaie. It crowns an artistic collaboration of just under forty years. A brief overview.

1 - La Passion de Gilles

It was former La Monnaie director Gerard Mortier who laid the foundations for what was to become one of the most spectacular opera careers in European contemporary music. In the early 1980s, he commissioned Philippe Boesmans to write La Passion de Gilles (1983). Initially Boesmans toyed with the idea of creating an anti-opera based on passages from the life story of the ‘French Bluebeard’ Gilles de Rais. The avant-gardist in him just wanted to “be done with the genre”. Instead, it left him with a life-long passion for the art form.

The opera was performed nine times to full houses. Then an impromptu decision was made to add one more performance. Interest in this final show was such that spectators even occupied the side stairs – unprecedented for a new creation.

1,5 - L’incoronazione di Poppea (1989)

In 1989, La Monnaie staged a new production of L'incoronazione di Poppea. All that survives of this unfinished opera by Claudio Monteverdi are the sung passages along with the rough notes, which give us an idea of the instrumentation. La Monnaie asked Philippe Boesmans to create a new adaptation and a new orchestration, which are remarkable for their modern accents in a baroque style. The harpsichord is even paired with synthesizer tones.

© Ruth Walz

Working on Poppea had a profound influence on Philippe Boesmans’ writing. “I learned a lot from Monteverdi, and in particular that each character has a distinct vocal profile, with his or her own intervals.” It also marked the start of a series of collaborations with Boesmans’ own Da Ponte: director-librettist Luc Bondy.

2,5 - Reigen (1993)

The collaboration with Luc Bondy continued with Reigen (1993), an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play of the same name. The story is one long chain of amorous episodes: the prostitute loves the soldier who languishes for the chambermaid, but she is infatuated by the young man who only has eyes for the young woman in love with her husband, while the husband has fallen for the charms of the little harlot who is smitten with the poet, even though he is the lover of the actress who is having an affair with the count who wakes up one morning next to the prostitute.

© Ruth Walz

The erotic atmosphere that pervades this opera was, according to Boesmans, responsible for a baby boom among the staff at La Monnaie! More verifiably, Reigen has proved one of his greatest successes. It is still being performed, for example, in a version adapted for chamber orchestra by Fabrizio Cassol.

3,5 - Wintermärchen (1999)

© Ruth Walz

Bernard Foccroulle, Gerard Mortier’s successor (and the composer of Cassandra), also looked to the Boesmans/Bondy partnership for a new opera. The choice fell on Shakespeare’s The Winter's Tale. The scenes on the Bohemian sea coast (forgive Shakespeare's limited geographical knowledge !) are primarily in English and accompanied by jazz-rock music. A challenge for conductor Antonio Pappano, who managed to seamlessly integrate the music of the Belgian ensemble Aka Moon into the orchestral parts.

4,5 - Julie (2004)

Julie, created in 2004 with Luc Bondy and Kazushi Ono, is a new masterpiece based on August Strindberg’s Fröken Julie. Julie tells of the forbidden love between Julie, the count's daughter, and Jean, her servant, both in the kitchen and on the fringes of an evening party. They are enraptured to the point of delirium by their dreams of escapism, social elevation and love. Kirsten, Jean’s cook and concubine, defends the social and moral order, which comes crashing down like a hatchet when the count returns home.

© Ruth Walz

Whereas Wintermärchen was a long narrative with a solid distribution of chorus and orchestra, this drama is given a more intimate setting: “This time I set out to scale down the dimensions. Three singers and an instrumental ensemble consisting of six string players, seven wind players, piano, percussion… This makes each instrumentalist a soloist and virtuoso, so you have to write for everyone. In that respect, less is more.”

5,5 - Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne (2009)

Philippe Boesmans’ residency at La Monnaie ended in 2006 and he retired from the Belgian broadcasting organisation RTBF the following year. However, that was not the end of his musical career. In 2009, he produced his last opera with Luc Bondy. Yvonne, Princesse de Bourgogne was commissioned by the Opéra de Paris but performed at La Monnaie soon afterwards.

Witold Gombrovicz’s absurd play of the same name about an ugly, apathetic and taciturn princess, amused Boesmans greatly, and his ‘comédie tragique’ is permeated with the same black humour.

6,5 - Au monde (2014)

Created at La Monnaie in 2014, Au monde is the first of two operas on which Philippe Boesmans collaborated with Joël Pommerat. He reworked one of his own plays into a libretto and also directed it. The opera won the International Award for Best World Premiere. It is about a wealthy but ailing industrialist arranging his succession. He favours his son, a soldier, who is returning home. The atmosphere between family members is heavy and oppressive, full of ambiguities and unspoken opinions. Is the son the serial killer who is terrorising the region? And what is the role of the adopted daughter? With their words, the women - three sisters - ensure that the relationship between the protagonists remains intact and that the underlying tensions never erupt.

7,5 - Pinocchio (2017)

A new theatre, a new opera! The newly renovated La Monnaie opened its doors in 2017 with Pinocchio. Once again, it was based on a play by Joël Pommerat. His version bypassed Disney and went back to Carlo Collodi’s original story. Philippe Boesmans’ music mirrors the plot: strangely atonal in the whale’s belly, dreamy when the fairy appears, frank and free during the circus scenes. And, a rarity in contemporary operas, the moving central theme is one of those immortal melodies you find yourself humming when you leave the theatre.

8,5 On purge bébé (2022)

And now, very nearly forty years after La Passion de Gilles, this last opera... His Falstaff. The first opera adaptation of a play by the French vaudeville writer Georges Feydeau, so as to "end on a cheery note".