Thyeste, La Monnaie's latest juicy operatic morsel, is based on a play by the Belgian writer Hugo Claus, who took it from Seneca. His libretto is set to music by the Dutch composer Jan Van Vlijmen, a Serialist of the Birtwistle generation, who died only last year.
Despite a tingling first tableau featuring what looks like a bloody headless corpse that materialises into a Fury (the formidable contralto Helena Rasker), the start of Gerardjan Rijnders' staging wasn't wholly gripping. Tantalus - sire of the Atreid family - hovers to remind us that the rot was there from the start. To avoid the inevitable choral black, Rien Bekkers comes up with florid designer gear seemingly inspired by Ikea's curtain department. The choir sings superbly, even if some moves are weak and the choral music ponderous.
But it picks up. Van Vlijmen restricts himself to smaller forces, allowing instrumental colours - solo strings, bass clarinet, cor anglais, oboe, bassoon, brass, percussion - to speak loud (or hushed) and clear.
Essential to the success of this increasingly rewarding performance were two Britons. Stefan Asbury, conducting his Asko Ensemble and the Cappella Amsterdam, nursed his players with meticulous attention to detail and balance, and emerged as a capable choral conductor, too.
John Daszak's Atrée (Atreus) is the bad guy, Agamemnon's father, who avenges his brother's cuckolding of himself by dishing up the grisly dinner. Only at the close do we fully grasp why: he senses his own offspring may be Thyeste's issue, and that his sibling knows. The final scene is, in effect, a long adagio: a scene of unalloyed horror that evolves into a virtual love duet between the brothers, Daszak's Atreus and the involving American baritone Dale Duesing (Thyeste). But one singer upstaged both: the Syrian Nabil Suliman, a wonderful clear bass whose Messenger scene earned him most applause.
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