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Pierre Bartholomée, La Lumière Antigone : Mireille Delunsch (soprano, Antigone), Natascha Petrinsky (mezzo-soprano, Hannah), Ensemble de musique de chambre de la Monnaie, Koen Kessels – La Monnaie, Brussels, 18.4.2008 (HC)

Like its predecessor, Pierre Bartholomée’s second opera La Lumière Antigone sets a libretto by Henry Bauchau, with whom the composer has collaborated on several occasions. The dramatic scena for soprano and large ensemble Le Rêve de Diotime (1999) sets words from Bauchau’s novel Diotime et les lions, whereas Ils étaient trois sur la route (children’s chorus and piano, 2003) and Histoire d’un caillou (soprano and piano, 2000-2006) also set words by Bauchau. Unlike its predecessor, La Lumière Antigone is on a somewhat smaller scale : it is considerably shorter and calls for smaller vocal and orchestral forces. In this case there are just two voices (soprano and mezzo-soprano) and a small mixed ensemble of fourteen players (string quintet, wind quintet, trumpet, trombone, percussion and piano). Its three acts play for a little over one hour and a half. The first act is a long monologue or a dramatic scena for Antigone, the second act is about the improbable meeting between Antigone and Hannah whereas the final act is a short monologue again, sung by Hannah.

It is of course tempting to consider that Bartholomée’s second opera is the direct sequel to its predecessor; but not quite so indeed. Oedipe sur la route dealt more or less faithfully with the well-known myth and, by so doing, told a fairly linear story. On the other hand, if it is true that La Lumière Antigone more or less begins where Oedipe sur la route ended, it no longer deals with mythological matter. The poet in fact imagined what might have happened to Antigone after she has been condemned to be immured alive. The opera begins when Antigone has entered the dark cave in which she is to die (“I enter into solitude and I am afraid”). Antigone relives her life and all the past events that caused her to be condemned to death by immurement. She defends herself fiercely for her fight was against injustice. She refused to let Oedipe’s body rot under the sun and abandoned as a prey to the vultures. She also realises that her woman’s life will remain unfulfilled, for she will never be a mother. Antigone’s last words (“Who speaks to us with her life without ever leaving this earth?”) are echoed by Hannah. Hannah is no mythological character. She is just a present-day actress who has played Antigone’s part (“I am here to speak and sing on your behalf”). When Antigone questions whether gods and tyrants still exist, Hannah tells her of the new gods and tyrants of modern times : market shares, machines, profit and the like. She also tells Antigone about men’s follies resulting in war and destruction. Antigone disappears and Hannah is left alone for her last monologue : she too wants to say “No” to iniquity and violence. She too wants to be another Antigone by helping change the world (“One can change life”) by letting reason have the upper hand on narrow-mindedness and injustice. Antigone will be her light, La Lumière Antigone.

Pierre Bartholomée’s magnificent music is undoubtedly one of the main assets of the opera. The music moves at a fairly steady and moderate tempo throughout, albeit with enough variety and contrast to sustain the fairly long time span of the work, for the three acts play without break. For all its variety, the music, however, is tightly held together through the use of recurrent motives and their variants, so that the composer achieves unity within diversity in a most successful way. The music also allows for many warmly lyrical moments; and the scoring for small instrumental forces never obscures words, which is paramount in a work in which there is little dramatic action, if at all, and one in which everything – so to say – happens in words rather than in deeds. Mireille Delunsch and Natascha Petrinsky sang superbly with excellent diction so that words came clearly through. Koen Kessels conducted a committed and vital reading of this magnificent score. I for one hope that the opera will soon be recorded for there is so much both in the words and in the music that a single hearing can not reveal. This is the sort of work that needs repeated hearings to make its full impact, although one single hearing is enough to show that this is a great piece of music.

As already briefly hinted at earlier in this review, there is very little action, if at all, in this opera; but that little was deftly handled by the stage director Philippe Sireuil. Antigone’s cave is suggested by a square hole above the orchestra, whereas Hannah is clearly part of the audience at the beginning of the second act. She gets nearer to Antigone for their dialogue and then moves back into the audience for her last monologue. Simple but highly effective lighting also considerably helps creating atmosphere. Mention must also be made of the video installation by Kurt Ralske, that I found quite effective in the first act where it focused on Antigone’s face, a bit less so in the second act when displaying explicit images of war and destruction that I found a bit redundant since Hannah’s words were clear enough. On the whole, however, this was one of the most satisfying operatic experiences that I have had recently; and I hope that the opera’s life will not be limited to a handful of performances. This is vintage Bartholomée and the music deserves to be heard again and again.

Hubert Culot

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