Philippe Boesmans' new opera Yvonne, Princesse de Bourgogne is based on Witold Gombrowicz's 1935 play of the same name. Both play and opera use the story of a crown prince (Philippe in the opera) and his mute fiancé (Yvonne) to show how the sensations of desire and disgust are closely related, and to explore the idea that identity is formed largely in the mirror of other people. The opera premiered in January 2009 at the Opéra national de Paris, and now comes for a limited run to Boesmans' native Belgium, playing at La Monnaie in Brussels.
The play is pitched mischievously somewhere between the grotesque and the comic (or, perhaps, the grotesque and the tragic), with the prince, the king and the queen all reacting to the disconcerting figure of the mute and bedraggled Yvonne with a confusing and confused anger that resolves, from different perspectives (the prince, for example, falls in love with her cretinous silence for a time), into a shared desire for her murder. Boesmans and his librettist Luc Bondy—the latter also directing the current run—have done well to preserve that tart flavour in their adaptation, enhancing some of the originalís character with witty elisions, and deepening the emotional canvass with musical augmentation and commentary.
I described Boesmans' music in an earlier review as existing intriguingly between the poles of postwar avant-garde and spectral styles, but as with other composers before him the demands of the theatre necessitated something new. The music of Yvonne is as versatile in style as Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, in fact recalling it more than once, particularly in its Pomo regard for irony, but also, more specifically, in its writing for chorus and vocal duos and trios, where the music floats free of diatonic punctuation but yet orbits in an invigorated and free polytonal environment. The opera is given form, particularly in the first two of its four acts, by a descending six/eight note leitmotif which transforms across events and instruments, but it otherwise flutters through styles according to dramatic demand.
In addition to a rich flow of almost Saariaho-esque molten musical textures mutating and spreading according to a central reference point, Boesmans often uses pastiche, for example of brass bands in crowd scenes, of coloratura intermittently, of swollen da capo Romantic arias in the Queen's lyric moment near the end, and of Baroque pageantry in the regal trillings of horns and winds at some of the entrances of the King in the third and fourth acts. This blend actually works rather well, chiefly thanks to Boesmans' facility for pointing the accompaniment towards some sort of overall plan on one hand, and towards the events on the stage on the other, whilst always nurturing a sinuous progression of the material underneath. Fired-up conductor Patrick Davin and the ever-adaptable musicians in the pit deserve some serious credit too. The melodic writing of the opera is pretty without being light, and angular without being strained, whilst the decision to allow the mute Yvonne to speak or shout her very few lines was a clever one, creating a forceful dramatic cleavage each time she speaks, alienating Yvonne from the other characters on stage whilst also allowing her some declarative power.
The show is staged with some skill, though without any deal of inspiration; a somewhat anonymous modern (circa roughly the 1930s, minus the king's Ali G tracksuits) aristocratic court with men in sharp suits and women bejewelled and beautiful in ball gowns opens up a dramatic space for the action, which is given with energy, movement, and with clever use of the space. The sets are unremarkable, though the Prince's chamber of the second act, with its padded back walls, did suggest some sort of gruesome torture chamber or mental asylum for Yvonne, who by this point has become the prince's fiancé, but has also suffered some abuse at his callous hands.
The casting, meanwhile, is solid; Marcel Reijans as Philippe finds just the right pitch of desperate and pitiless self-regard, whilst suggesting some depth of feeling underneath. Dörte Lyssewski makes for a suitably estranged figure, ghostly white and gamine like as the occasion fits. Lisa Houben counters Paul Gay's riotously spoilt and vocally fierce King Ignace well, proving hysterical for her own part, but also capable of great feeling as well, as evidenced by her (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) rousing lyric aria towards the close, where she recites her poems to herself in a hilarious and sort of tragic renunciation of the very codes of unfeeling social convention that brought her there in the first place, and which this opera so enjoyably sends up.
Yvonne, then, has interesting things to say about the emptiness into which humans are so capable of falling, also adding some useful insights along the way about the twinned nature of desire and disgust. Its music is its greatest asset though, earning for the opera a sense of endowment that its wearing Pomo ironising might otherwise have precluded.
Photos by Maarten Vanden Abeele