Talk about clueless. When we meet the porcelain mogul Monsieur Follavoine, he’s bent double over a dictionary, desperately flipping through the Z’s in search of “the Hebrides.” You scratch your head, but, hey, don’t the French say lay ZAY-breed? For the splenetic Madame Follavoine, the blunder is just one more reason to pepper her husband with scorn. Next, she’ll be stamping her foot about a contract to supply the entire French military with indestructible chamber pots. (Potties as an inventory item, okay. As the family’s calling card? Non!) But what really has the household at sixes and sevens this morning is Junior’s point-blank refusal to take a laxative.
The clock was ticking when the Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans fell to work on the farce On Purge Bébé. The scenario for what was to be his ninth opera derives from Georges Feydeau, the Shakespeare of slamming bedroom doors. “It’s a vicious piece,” Boesmans said, “but it makes me laugh out loud when I’m composing it.” In the hospital, with only hours to live, he handed the project off to his trusted associate Benoît Mernier, who tied up the loose ends and read the proofs. And voilà! Here we are with live video of the premiere production, filmed in December at La Monnaie, in Brussels.
Like James Joyce, Boesmans reveled in quotation, allusion, and pastiche, knee-jerk or arcane. Given the setup, Mendelssohn’s rapturous concert overture The Hebrides counts as very low-hanging fruit. More cheekily, the composer consecrates Follavoine’s thunder mug with the same music Wagner uses for the Holy Grail. A whiff of adultery cues more Wagner, appropriately a shred of Tristan und Isolde.
The craftsmanship of the score is meticulous, and it keeps burbling along to giddy effect. The stage mechanics are comparably ingenious, though the tacky modern-dress design choices do Boesmans no favors at all. The director is Richard Brunel, who also claims libretto credit for dialogue lifted verbatim from Feydeau.
The great French filmmaker Jean Renoir’s first talkie, cranked out in three weeks, shot the same script under the same title in 1931, setting the action in interiors remarkable for period furniture, tapestries, and chandeliers hanging from 16-foot ceilings. Renoir’s quickie is no masterpiece, but with a vixen named Marguerite Pierry lording it over the screen legends Michel Simon and Fernandel, the laughs keep coming. In the opera, Brunel leans into the bathroom humor, which isn’t what makes Feydeau tick at all. Wisely, Renoir lets Maman and Bébé propel this farce.
In Brussels, Jean-Sébastien Bou and the high-flying Jodie Devos throw themselves into the squabbling parents with a vengeance. For reasons unknown, “Baby” Toto—per Feydeau, seven years old—has two avatars. First, we meet the adorable Martin Da Silva Magalhães, who looks to be about the right age. Then, a petulant beanpole, mostly in matching red jammies, takes over. It’s Tibor Ockenfels, who is 30 years old, GQ-ready, and enough to drive the entire Third Republic around the bend.
On Purge Bébé streams on the La Monnaie/De Munt Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL.He lives in Hawaii