Mystery, suspense and an intangible truth that is beyond words: the work of Belgium’s first and as yet only winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Maurice Maeterlinck never divulges all his secrets. Not even in the Three Little Dramas for Marionettes (Trois petits drames pour marionettes, 1894), three succinct and unheimlich pieces of theatre poetry revived today in the form of a new La Monnaie opera entitled Le Silence des ombres.
THE BIRTH OF A SILENCE
It is 2016. The sun is lavishing its rays on Rome, where three men have arranged to meet at the famous Villa de Medici, home to the Académie de France. The academy once afforded Berlioz and Debussy, and indeed every French composer of significance who won the prestigious Prix de Rome, the opportunity to spend two years in the South pursuing their work and gathering inspiration. And even in the twenty-first century it still offers residencies to the cream of France’s artistic talent. One of the three men, composer Benjamin Attahir, is a pensionnaire, i.e. a fellow of the academy. He welcomes his visitors, the director of La Monnaie Peter de Caluwe and the French writer and stage director Olivier Lexa. They had met at La Monnaie several months earlier when Lexa was working as the dramaturge on L'Opera seria (Gassmann). A conversation during the rehearsals revealed their shared passion for a playwright who could hardly be more remote from the baroque pastiche they were preparing.
Though born and bred in Ghent, Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) was educated in French. As a scion of a well-to-do family – he was ever the bourgeois – he was educated at a Jesuit college in Ghent and went on to study law at the university there. Yet he chose a literary career. In 1889 he made his poetry debut with the Serres chaudes collection and published his first play, La Princesse Maleine, which immediately put him on the map. The one-act plays L'intruse and Les Aveugles written the following year contributed much to his reputation which was further endorsed by Pelléas et Mélisande (1892). Maeterlinck’s work was a radical break from the realist theatre of the day and he was now regarded as a key figure of symbolism and a figurehead of the European literary avant-garde. Rather than show ‘reality’, he tried to create the ‘theatre of the soul’ by means of symbols and metaphors. He was interested in the unsayable, the invisible, the intimate and the mysterious. “Le drame de l'existence elle-même” – the drama of life itself.
In November 1911, he was not yet 50, Maeterlinck’s status as one of the world’s greatest writers was confirmed with the Nobel Prize. According to the jury “in appreciation of his many-sided literary activities, and especially of his dramatic works, which are distinguished by a wealth of imagination and by a poetic fancy, which reveals, sometimes in the guise of a fairy tale, a deep inspiration, while in a mysterious way they appeal to the readers' own feelings and stimulate their imaginations." This unprecedented honour was officially celebrated with a homage at La Monnaie in May 1912 in the presence of the royal family and with Gabriel Fauré as the conductor.
Back to Rome. The visit of the two guests is not without strings attached. 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of Maeterlinck’s death, a date that was crying out for a new homage to this icon of Belgian literature. So for a while Peter de Caluwe and Olivier Lexa have been toying with the idea of a new Maeterlinck creation and, as it turns out, one of his works for the theatre has everything you could wish for in a libretto. The Three Little Dramas for Marionettes written in 1894 are three compact plays, which achieve maximum expression with great economy. The sentences are often intentionally short, the vocabulary limited and Maeterlinck seems to choose his words mainly for their declamatory potential, which makes the text very singable. Moreover, his use of repeated motifs creates a smooth transition to the leitmotifs which were all the rage in music at the time. So the three dramas really lend themselves to an opera adaptation and have in fact been successfully set to music several times. But never before have they been performed together to provide a full evening’s entertainment.
The Villa de Medici would appear to provide the perfect setting to get an opera project off the ground, particularly when it is in the hands of a composer with all the necessary credentials. But will it resonate? Eventually the idea of the triptych is mooted... and it sparks immediate enthusiasm. Not long after that, La Monnaie officially commissioned Attahir to compose what will be his first large-scale scenic opera, his first exercise in the ‘grande forme’. Olivier Lexa was asked to direct it.
It was decided that the rest of the artistic team would also be youthful. Being a member of the ENOA, European Network of Opera Academies, gave La Monnaie the opportunity to recruit Europe’s up-and-coming opera talent for this production, while for the sets and costumes La Monnaie approached teachers and students from La Cambre, the graduate and post-graduate school for the arts in Brussels, which enjoys an excellent reputation in this area. Alexander Koppelmann was brought on board for the lighting, a crucial aspect of every Maeterlinck production. The German lighting designer made a name for himself in the opera world with his stylized lighting designs for Andrea Breth’s productions, including at La Monnaie.
STAGING THE INVISIBLE
Olivier Lexa called this new opera Le Silence des ombres (The Silence of the Shadows), a title which brilliantly captures Maeterlinck’s universe – insofar as that is ever possible. Silence and shadows, le non-dit and le non-vu – the unsaid and the unseen - are omnipresent. “Speech is of Time, Silence of Eternity”, Maeterlinck wrote in his essay Le Silence. “When we really have something to say to each other, we are obliged to be silent”. So in this new opera the essence will lie between the notes and both the most sublime and the most terrifying will be kept out of the picture – and so intact. In any case, there is no shortage of either in these three pieces.
THE DEATH OF TINTAGILES
The Queen has killed almost the entire family of little Tintagiles. Now she just has to deal with him. His sisters Ygraine and Bellangère do everything in their power to protect him from the menacing shadow of the castle....
The Old Man and the Stranger appear outside a house. Through the windows, we can see a family inside. The body of one of their daughters has just been recovered from the river where she drowned. A crowd is approaching with the body. How should they break the news?
ALLADINE AND PALOMIDES
The old King Ablamore falls in love with a young slave, Alladine, but he doesn’t deceive himself: “Il est triste d’aimer trop tard” – “It is sad to fall in love too late in life”. Palomides, his daughter’s fiancé, appears. One look, and he and Alladine are united by an unbreakable bond of love. Ablamore’s revenge hangs over them...
For this triptych with its diverse story lines, the artistic team came up with a unifying set that creates a specific performance area for each part by shifts of emphasis in lighting and image. This of course was inspired by Maeterlinck’s own symbolism, but also by for example the concrete architecture of the acclaimed Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Any reference to a specific place or time is avoided. Medievalesque round arches are combined with concrete walls which already display the ravages of time. The architecture facilitates an intense game with both the vertical perspective (ground level – middle level – top level) and the depth perception (nearby – far away and foreground - background). Video images open the perspective to ‘the other reality’ and, like the costumes, establish subtle links between the three parts.
The decision to stage this opera’s world première at the KVS, which cannot accommodate a full orchestra, did not faze Benjamin Attahir. As Goethe knew: “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister” – The art is knowing how to set limits. So he wrote his music for a relatively small, but striking instrumentation. To communicate the symbolic obsession with ‘depth’, with the repressed and underground, he scrapped for example the violins in favour of stringed instruments with a lower tessitura. And to avoid an exact date and location being assigned to his music, he opted for unusual instruments like the serpent (described as the seventeenth-century forerunner of the tuba) and the accordion (only perfected in the nineteenth century).
The music for The Death of Tintagiles and Alladine and Palomides is complementary and uses similar basic material which is then given a different coloration. Both start with a solo: The Death of Tintagiles in complete darkness with a solo by the serpent; Alladine and Palomides with a cello solo. By way of contrast, the middle and also the shortest part, Interior, is given a long trio for three violas and speaking voices. Attahir does not compose atonal music, but plays with the tension between consonant and dissonant within a closed sound world which has all the hallmarks of the extraordinary universe of Maeterlinck’s symbolism.
When the curtain comes down, the question on every spectator’s lips is likely to be whether the world of these Three Dramas, a place of extreme tension which leads us to the very borders of reason and understanding, stems from the isolation of madness or the hallucinatory infiniteness of an all too great a truth.
Koen Van Caekenberghe
Translation: Alison Mouthaan