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Posts Tagged ‘La Monnaie’

Two years ago, when I first wandered around the weird and hilly streets of Brussels / Bruxelles / Brussel , Belgium — have to include the French and the Flemish spellings in there, in true Belgian fashion — I was pleasantly surprised by the charm and grace of a city so often called “boring,” “ugly” or “unfortunate” by the international press, reporting from the city to cover the European Union’s administrative arm based there.

I loved the odd, overlapping architectural worlds of 18th and 19th century northern Europe classicalism and mid-1970s international brutalism, lining the cobbled streets of the capital city of an imaginary country created for European political neutrality. I loved the people, then as now embroiled in a political crisis of looming devolution threatened by a complicated language-based system of power sharing between regions and parties, and yet still constantly amused by their king, happy about your visit to their country and ready for the next glass of beer.

So I was rather surprised when the train pulled into the station at Bruxelles-Midi last week after a short and rolling trip through the French, Walloon and Flemish countryside and I found myself face to face with a simple and undeniable fact: Brussels IS ugly. Brussels IS a ridiculous city. NOTHING seems to be happening here late at night / in the middle of the day / ever, really. I could NOT have spent the six months I spent in Paris here, a choice which I had originally  pursued when I made the decision to study abroad in the spring of 2010.

It was a remarkable discovery. I reflected on the conditions that could have made my first visit to Brussels so magical — its status as the first French-speaking, non-German European city I had ever visited at that time — and I decided that six months in Paris was the right decision.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy this second visit. As the first part of my summer opera adventure in which I would be staying with someone I didn’t know — Huzzah CouchSurfing! — I was looking forward to meeting new people and being somewhat self-suficient again. And the production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” that I saw at the La Monnaie / De Munt Royal Opera House was perhaps the most exciting and captivating performance of the summer thus far.

My perfectly accommodating couch surf host, Damien, lived in a pretty, residential area south of the city center, close to a lively Portuguese / student / cultural area and a lovely series of ponds and parks, making for nice evening walks, afternoon reads in the sun and early morning runs.

My days in Brussels were spent as such: wake up early, shower and eat, leave the apartment by 8:20 — Damien had to go to work and only had one set of keys — spend three hours in the café down the street with delicious, cheap coffee and free wifi, wander into the city center for lunch in a park or the Royal Gardens or on a terraced café patio, visit some sort of historical site and then wander back “homeward” for whatever evening activity I had planned.

Those included: dinner by the pond, “Macbeth” at La Monnaie / De Munt and a thank you dinner chez Damien in which I made the now-famous / infamous rosemary fig tart of wonder — sans figs, unfortunately.

In between this obviously “busy” schedule, I also had time to drink a lot of coffee, read two books, including a rather interesting discussion of urban growth problems written by Eliel Saarinen, the architect who built my high school, and see “L’Illusioniste,” the latest film from French-Canadian director Sylvain Chomet, who also just happened to direct my favorite movie — and the background for this webpage — “The Triplets of Belleville.”

“L’Illusioniste” followed a similar format as that of “Triplets” : little to no talking, angled and odd old-style animation, lonely old people helping sad young people reach their potential, wild music and fat family pets — in this case, it was a rather vicious yet ultimately lovable magician’s white rabbit.

It was a lovely film, albeit a sad one made even sadder by the fact that I saw it alone in Brussels in the middle of a lovely late June afternoon, but it was a nice way to spend a lazy day in Belgium.

I also tried — and failed — to set up a meeting with members of OperaEuropa, a Brussels-based European cultural organization that coordinates Europe’s opera scene. Clearly a perfect and obviously relevant match for this intrepid research student, but the director was out of town and his assistant was out with some debilitating illness. I’m still trying to pick their brains via email, but it was rather unfortunate that a choice opportunity like this to sit down and talk opera with some people who know the business well.

But that sad scheduling failure did not prevent me from seeing “Macbeth” at La Monnaie / De Munt, which — as stated above — was the best thing I have seen thus far on this trip, and a truly relevant example of modern stagings of classic opera at their weird and wonderful finest.

According to the program I purchased — in French AND Flemish, for your reading pleasure. Attention Readers: If you ever wanted to read the Italian libretto of Verdi’s “Macbeth” in silly, sing-songy Dutch, come find me. I have that libretto for you — the production’s controversial and avant-garde Polish director decided to stage the work along a “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder / Apocalypse Now / Modern Cultural Failings” type line, resulting in a visual overload of artfully placed thematic clues, omnipresent video installations and creepy, porcelain-doll-mask-wearing child-witches.

The set most closely resembled an American middle school gymnasium, and the costumes, rather than from any particular period, included such winning outfit ensembles as army jackets, fish-nets and high heels — this was on a man — and elegant, mid-60s British royalty formal attire for the titular Scottish would-be king and his conniving Lady.

The work is flawed in parts, likely stemming from its unusual and convoluted status as a Scottish legend told by a English playwright and subjected to the standards of mid-19th century Italian opera, but it is usually highly regarded as a true Verdi masterwork, and some of its arias and larger group numbers — including the haunting Act III Macduff aria “O figli! O figli mei!” — are well-known throughout the world of classical vocal music.

La Monnaie / De Munt ‘s production relied heavily on obvious recurring motifs, including Macbeth’s clear insanity, his wife’s instability and greed, the fatigue and fog of war, film noir, Vietnam, chess, the supernatural and white trash. In a surprisingly moving opening bit, a man reads a letter — in English — about coming home from a gruesome war zone to his beautiful wife. A closer inspection in my program revealed that this letter was, in fact, a real letter from a Vietnam soldier in the 70s home to his wife in the States. It was a but much, sure, but it worked, like so much of the extremely high concept, high art production.

In a lesser production, these elaborate visual elements might have overwhelmed and distracted, but in this particular one, they absolutely worked. The vocal cast, including an always off-stage and ever-powerful chorus, was phenomenal, and the leads were a revelation. The best example of this came at the end of Act I, when Macbeth, his Lady, Banquo, Macduff, Malcolm and their respective servants lead the chorus in an a cappella group mourning session for the fallen King Duncan.

It was an eerie, moving and powerful moment, and I’m not just saying this so I can italicize things and use complicated, art criticy type words. The whole house was virtually silent, and the vocal tension was so stirring and so beautiful that I swear I heard the audience collectively catch their breath when faced with such a powerful musical moment. It was absolutely wonderful.

Macbeth and his Lady were also fantastic, singing their roles with complicated psychological nuance and skill, and Macduff / Banquo / Malcolm / the servants were great, too. The whole thing was just that great, and it probably would have been that great regardless of the complicated visual imagery shoved down the audience’s throats at every spare moment. The fact that these visual choices were so disturbing, arresting and yes, meaningful was a lovely side bonus.

I could say more about the reasons was this production added much to my summer research goals — the full house on a Tuesday, the theatre’s interesting status as the only opera house funded by the Belgian national government as opposed to regional governments, the theatre’s recent controversial and provocative stagings of other classic works — but I’ll save that for my final report. Mostly, I’m just in awe of the great work of art that I was fortunate enough to see last week.

I’m in Berlin now, getting ready to take in both the operatic drama of Beethoven and also of the German national football team, playing Argentina tonight in a tense quarter-final game.

Brussels may be an ugly, funky and strange city. But it gave me an evening of such power and beauty, that I can forgive it for all of — or most of — its failings.

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