Brussels in Bloom

What makes Belgium's Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie one of the most exciting theaters in Europe? SOFIA NYBLOM reports.

Brussels in Bloom HDL 1 512
The Grand-Place in Brussels
© Ian Dagnall/Alamy 2012
Brussels in Bloom 1 lg 512
The city's Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall)
© Howard Kingsnorth/cultura/Corbis 2012
Brussels in Bloom 2 sm 512
The European Parliament Building in Brussels
© imagebroker/Alamy 2012

How does one explain the repeated artistic success of the Théâtre de la Monnaie? In 2011, it was named "Opera House of the Year" by Opernwelt — the first time the prize was awarded to a theater outside the German-speaking territory. Landmark productions such as last year's Les Huguenots and the world premiere of Philippe Boesmans's Julie have helped to revitalize La Monnaie's presence on the operatic map. The Belgian opera scene has become increasingly vibrant in the postwar period — as though the creative spirit of surrealist artist René Magritte and the modern-day cartoonists permeated as far as the opera stages. Most feel the catalyst was Gerard Mortier, the legendary manager who raised La Monnaie to an international level in the 1980s, not only pumping new life into the National Opera but inviting the smaller, fringe companies such as Muziektheater Transparant or LOD to collaborate. 

In Brussels, the worldwide financial crisis has seemed to fuel creativity. "There has been a change over the past fifteen years," states LOD's artistic director, Hans Bruneel. "In the trails of the crisis, an interest in developing cheaper opera productions has evolved. Strangely, the crisis accelerates the collaborations!" And the summer season in Belgium happens to be the moment when collaborations between smaller companies bloom. 

The summer musical season this year kicks off on May 4 with the multidisciplinary Kunstenfestivaldesarts, lasting through May 26 — invading several venues in the city with exciting performances. Among other things, the festival will host a new production by LOD, High Grass, which originated as an installation by director/dramaturge Inne Goris and video artist Kurt d'Haeseleer and will be performed in Brussels with newly composed music by Dominique Pauwels, one of LOD's resident composers. Pauwels is also commissioned to write an opera based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, set for its premiere in 2013. 

As always, La Monnaie manages to bring interesting productions in interplay with ongoing events. May brings two musical settings of Ariosto's Orlando. Great expectations surround Handel's Orlando, in a new, cinematographically inspired production staged by Pierre Audi. On the podium is native son René Jacobs, the erstwhile countertenor turned conductor, who started singing as a child chorister at St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent. 

In collaboration with Muziektheater Transparant, La Monnaie presents an avant-garde production of Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso, specially adapted for young audiences, that will go on the road in Flanders and Holland. For this, Flemish composer Jan Van Outryve has adapted musical themes from Vivaldi's operas and other works, writing new music on Ariosto's texts — highlighting the yearning for love against a background of bitter religious wars and a society in decline.

To wrap up the current season at La Monnaie, Baroque specialist Marc Minkowski conducts his first Verdi opera, Il Trovatore, which stars Marina Poplavskaya and Misha Didyk as Leonora and Manrico. The staging, by the Russian firebrand Dmitri Tcherniakov, promises an alternative take on the almost surreal story of Verdi's opera, in which each character tells the story from his or her limited viewpoint, and only Azucena knows the horrifying truth.

Brussels in Bloom hdl 2 512
Le Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Belgium's leading opera house
© Peter Cavanagh/Alamy 2012

Since Mortier departed from La Monnaie in 1991, the torch has been passed to a succession of gifted managers; Bernard Foccroulle, for one, invited daring stage directors to take a fresh look at opera repertoire. The man who currently holds the keys to this cultural treasury is its talented Flemish manager, Peter de Caluwe, who enjoys taking calculated risks for an open-minded and loyal audience that has come to expect to be challenged artistically and intellectually. "People take pride in attending performances here," says de Caluwe. "They say, 'We will go to La Monnaie,' rather than 'We are going to see Salome or La Traviata.' It has become a brand." 

Brussels is a city with many faces: the capital of the European community is also the capital of the Flemish community, while housing a great number of the Francophone Belgians. The monumental façades of the European Parliament bear witness to the city's role as the nave of European politics for the past few decades. Despite the fact that Belgium is suffering from a significant budget deficit, and as a result the federal government has imposed heavy cuts across the board, de Caluwe seems cautiously confident. 

From his arrival at La Monnaie, de Caluwe has built each season's programming around a specific theme. The 2011–12 season revolved around the idea of searching for "our multifaceted identity." "What we are living on a daily basis is basically the history of Europe," de Caluwe says. "We live together with two different communities who seemingly don't understand each other but have lived together forever. We are the frontline, literally, in this house between the Germanic and the Latin culture." Visible proof of this fact are the projected titles, doubling in French and Dutch for every performance.

One of de Caluwe's frequent collaborators is stage director Guy Joosten, who works on the world's major stages, from the Met to Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu. His radical, politically charged staging of Salome had its premiere in Barcelona in 2009 before coming to Brussels this past January. It presented a Salome surrounded by decadent Mafiosi and armed bodyguards. Her childhood trauma — she was sexually abused by her stepfather — was reenacted in the dance of the seven veils. The critical reactions to La Monnaie's Salome were a keen reflection of the city's cultural duality. "The Flemish press welcomes a new, clever interpretation," observes Geert Van der Speeten, critic of De Standaard. "The French-speaking critics, perhaps a bit more conservative, are disappointed in a Salome without any sensuality." 

After a record-breaking governmental crisis that lasted 541 days, Belgium last November finally managed to form a coalition government. Increasingly, the question is independence — regional independence for Flanders and Wallonie, respectively, and independence when it comes to cultural politics as well. But what about Brussels? The looming question is how to split a city that doesn't really belong to anyone. The question of identity remains a theme of the day for Brussels, as much as it is for La Monnaie — but the city's spirit of adventure remains very much alive. spacer 

SOFIA NYBLOM is a Swedish music journalist and the director of several music documentaries for SVT. She has written music criticism for Svenska Dagbladet, and she recently served as head of communication at the Musikaliska Concert Hall in Stockholm. 

Follow OPERA NEWS on FacebookTwitter Button