Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne: Gerard Mortier shuts his bolt pretty triumphantly

 24th January, 2009

I haven’t written much about the Paris Opera in the recent past, despite continuing to go there as often as my travels permit. Last night’s triumphant world première of Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne by Philippe Boesmans at the Palais Garnier, which a friend and I attended, provides a good opportunity to correct this, especially as the 2008-2009 season will be the last by my friend Gerard Mortier, the man who has been at the helm of the Paris Opera house since 2004.

Gerard has presided, in those few years, over a spectacular mutation in that venerable institution. Building on the institutional, governance and financial reforms courageously carried out by his predecessor, Hugues Gall, Gerard chose to instil successive touches of modernity into a repertoire that, despite the high standards that characterised it, was probably more stuffy and conventional than a lot of people even realised at the time: his predilection for difficult, yet stunningly beautiful twentieth-century works such as Poulenc’s magnificent Dialogues de Carmélites, Messiaen’s Saint-François d’Assise or, more recently, Prokofiev’s L’amour des trois oranges initially got the backs up the stuffy Parisians who traditionally make up the institution’s audience—bitchy, rude and often, it has to be said, pretty ignorant about music and ready to clap or boo—often vociferously—in blissful ignorance of the true artistic merits of what they have been watching.

After four years at the helm, Gerard has shut his bolt. A new generation of younger, more educated, more international and more open-minded music lovers has been drawn to the opera, and the old Parisian cold blankets have stopped grumbling and continued coming. The heckling and jeers to which the latter greeted every new performance have given way to genuine appreciation, including by the critics, of Gerard’s achievements.

Last night’s Yvonne, I think, demonstrated pretty conclusively how Gerard’s obsessive perfectionism has paid dividends: Boesmans’s elegant, though perhaps sometimes rather facile music, while resolutely contemporary, was never aggressive, utterly devoid of that aggressive dissonance that is so frequently regarded as a requirement by twentieth-century composers. It was beautifully set off by Luc Bondy’s subtle direction and the décors by Richard Peduzzi—always a favourite of mine. Mireille Delunsch, who sung the role of La Reine Marguerite, approached it as she often does, overwhelming the part with her own personality and style rather than the reverse and, as so often, getting away with it perfectly. Sylvain Cambreling was clearly relaxed conducting one of those contemporary works in which he is far more at ease than with Mozart.

The audience applauded heartily. I bumped into many friends and acquaintances, including a distinguished lady who thought the music a touch too facile but enjoyed it nonetheless and I think Yvonne should be on to a good start. I would certainly recommend making the effort to go and see it.