On purge bébé
Librettist and director
Premiere: December 2022
Benoît Mernier on how he finished the score
"'Merde !', now that's a word I haven't often had to put to music." Composer Benoît Mernier faced the artistically and emotionally demanding task of finishing the last score of his mentor and friend Philippe Boesmans. He tells you all about it in this article and also during his musical lecture Inside the Music on 1 December.
Librettist and director Richard Brunel pays tribute to Philippe Boesmans and recalls their first meeting, which inspired On purge bébé.
My dear, my very dear Philippe,
I first got to know you when I was in the audience at a performance of your Julie in 2005 in Aix-en-Provence. And already, then, I was greatly moved by your refined writing, your sense of drama and vocality and your high standards for the sung text. And without yet knowing you personally, I admired the marvellous artist that you were. And then in 2017 I was extraordinarily lucky to meet you, again in Aix-en-Provence, for the production of Pinocchio. Your spontaneous kindness and frank and cordial simplicity left a lasting impression on me.
I thank coincidence – you called it coincidence – for our chance meeting in a street near the Grand Theatre de Provence. And there, in that street you led me on a daring and almost impossible lyrical adventure: to stage a Feydeau play at the Opera. It had never been done before. And precisely because it was impossible, you wanted to do it. And you did. On purge bébé… Each time you took mischievous delight in pronouncing the title. On purge bébé. Your eyes would sparkle with cheekiness at the idea of a constipated child on the stage of the Opera. And the thought of a seller of chamber pots as the anti-hero of an opera had you in raptures.
Not long after, I came to see you in Brussels and we started to work together. I will never forget your wonderful sense of humour, your sensitivity, your keen eye and your joy at work, your risquée observations and elegant attention. What a pleasure and honour it is to have shared all these moments with you. Your weekly telephone calls to work on this Bébé or sometimes just to talk about the opera we would achieve after this one will be sorely missed. I am going to miss your jokes and your laughter.
We laughed together, laughed a lot – everything was an excuse to laugh. To laugh uproariously and live joyfully. And your final opera, will that also be for laughter? Writing that word – 'final' – leaves me hopelessly engulfed in deep emotion. Your absence doesn’t make me laugh, so, my dear friend, I’ll keep your laughter in my ears and it will guide me when I stage your On purge bébé. And the whole team and I will do it in your memory, and perform your opera with a mischievous joy, laughing while we work as much as we can.
Philippe, thank you so much for being you.
Not a month, sometimes not even a week, goes by without a change in the way the puzzle of a new creation has to be put together. On purge bébé is no exception to this. Due to personal reasons, MM Ambassador Stéphane Degout sees himself forced to cancel his participation in this opera production. A few months from the premiere, we have fortunately quickly found a worthy replacement: the new Monsieur Follavoine is called Jean-Sébastien Bou, who had already appeared at La Monnaie as Don Giovanni. From performing one good family man to another...
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
Former La Monnaie director Gerard Mortier laid the foundation of Boesmans’ opera career. He commissioned Philippe Boesmans for La Passion de Gilles (1983) in the early 1980s. Based on the story of the “French Bluebeard” Gilles de Rais, the opera was performed nine times to sold-out audiences. Then, unexpectedly, the decision was made to add one more performance. The interest in this dernière was so massive that the audience even occupied the side stairs – unprecedented for a new creation.
#1.5 L'incoronazione di Poppea
La Monnaie presented a new production of L'incoronazione di Poppea in 1989. All that has survived of this unfinished opera by Monteverdi are the sung passages and rough notes that give an idea of the harmony. La Monnaie asked Philippe Boesmans to create a new adaptation and orchestration. It is striking for its modern accents in baroque style. The harpsichord is even doubled with synthesizer tones. Working on Poppea had a profound influence on Philippe Boesmans’ writing. “I learned a lot from Monteverdi, especially the fact that each character has its own vocal profile, with its own intervals.” It also marked the start of a series of collaborations with Boesman’s own Da Ponte: director-librettist Luc Bondy.
The collaboration with Luc Bondy first continues with Reigen (1993), an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play of the same name. The story is one big love chain: the prostitute loves the soldier who is yearning for the chambermaid, but she loves the young man who is yearning for the young woman who loves her husband, while the husband is captivated by the little harlot who is in love with the poet, even though he is the lover of the actress who is having an affair with the Count who wakes up next to the prostitute one morning. The permanently erotic atmosphere of this opera was, according to Boesmans, responsible for a baby boom among the staff at La Monnaie. More verifiably, the piece has been one of his greatest successes. It is still being performed to this day, for example, in the reduction for chamber orchestra by Fabrizio Cassol.
Bernard Foccroulle, Gerard Mortier’s successor (and the composer of Cassandra), also approached the Boesmans/Bondy duo for a new opera. Shakespeare’s The Winter's Tale was chosen. The scenes on the Bohemian seacoast (forgive Shakespeare's limited geographical knowledge) are primarily in English and are accompanied by jazz-rock music. A challenge for conductor Antonio Pappano, who had to seamlessly fit the Belgian ensemble Aka Moon’s music into the orchestral parts.