His fifth opera, inspired by a 1938 story by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne is his fourth with his long time collaborator, film director Luc Bondy, who staged the work.
The edgy story, in the style of the Theater of the Absurd, has an unusual twist for an opera: the title character is mute. Found on the street, dirty and homeless, by the young prince, she is impulsively made his fianc_e as an act of rebellion. The story, adapted for the opera stage by Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischofberger, is a meditation on status, disgust and desire.
The passion of both Boesmans and Bondy to make strong theatre central to opera has now given us four works, the last being his opera Julie, after Strindberg's Miss Julie, which debuted in Brussels in 2005 and later that summer was featured at the Festival of Aix-en-Provence. It was at the Aix Festival that the two friends began talking about this new project.
Boesmans, 72, has a keen feel for how music and drama interconnect which has placed him at the forefront of today's opera composers. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has found his own distinctive voice and it has a wide pallet of musical color, highlighted with gentle bells and chimes. With hardly a dissonance in sight, his post-romantic but acerbic music has a canny ability to track the vocal line.
There are two memorable musical moments in the opera that come to mind: a bumptious laughing chorus by the courtiers when they see the prince's choice and the deliciously ironic "Lacrimosa" - the final bars after the death of the potential princess from poisoned perch. If one has any criticism, it might be that larger scale musical ideas like these should have a more important presence in his music: more composing, less tracking. It is a problem as old as opera itself, finding the just balance between music and words.
The work, with a chamber-sized orchestra, was given in the Paris Opera's ornate Palais Garnier - a better choice than the outsized Bastille. Little expense was spared with the top level cast. Tenor Yann Beron was ideal as the conflicted prince, his shiny-bright tenor without blemish. Baritone Paul Gay was imposing as the posturing king in track suit and sun glasses with no less than soprano Mireille Delunch, in excellent voice, as his neurotic queen. The role of chamberlain, a basso profondo role, was given to veteran bass Victor von Halem whose French was less than ideal and whose voice, at the lower ranges, sounded like it was coming through a megaphone.
The secondary roles were impeccable, but special mention must be given to the talented actress Dorte Lyssewski as the mute princess. Her complex role required much more than showing pleasure or pain and was central to the success of this work. Conductor Sylvain Cambreling and the imported Klangforum Wien brought the music to life with careful attention to detail. Detail too was in the acting, with the cast clearly rehearsed a good deal by Bondy.
Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne is uncompromising storytelling: a work of originality and consequence. Warmly received by the opening night audience, there were cheers for the composer and even for the director (which has not been frequent in the recent Gerard Mortier years.)
The work has seven performances through February 8. It will also be seen during Vienna's Festwochen in June (where Bondy is the intendant) and later at Brussels' Th_ê¢tre de La Monnaie where the composer has been in residence for the last two decades.
Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne is a four-act opera performed in French. The production will enjoy 5 more performances at the Palais Garnier: Jan. 30, Feb. 1, 3, 5 and 8.
For tickets and information in English, visit Op_ra National de Paris.
Frank Cadenhead is a journalist who has written for such publications as The International Herald Tribune and The American Record Guide. He is the Paris correspondent for MusicalAmerica.com.