Auber’s Domino Noir in Liège

Daniel-François-Esprit Auber was a highly successful composer of opéra-comique in the first half of the 19th century but today, outside francophone countries, his works are rarely performed. The current staging of Le domino noir at the Opéra Royal de Liège may provide some explanation. The music is certainly not responsible for the neglect; its graceful melodies and brisk rhythmic patterns fall gratefully on the ear. The problem is rather with the work’s multifarious dramatic content. Centred on a romance between a Spanish courtier and a would-be nun whom he meets in different disguises, it is encumbered by characters and situations only tangentially related to the hero and heroine.

The antics in which all the characters engage are sometimes humorous, sometimes tedious. The production team presumably considered that audiences would find the piece insufficiently funny and therefore filled the stage with eccentric, ludicrous costumes, grimacing animals, statues which moved and zany feverish activity. That the co-directors Valérie Lesort and Christian Hecq had built their reputations in the “straight” theatre came as no surprise because Auber’s amiable score was submerged beneath all the razzmatazz. They have yet to learn that in opera the production must be led by, rather than itself lead, the music. Admittedly it is a challenge to turn the work’s convolutions into something coherent, but could this not have been done in a more satisfying way aesthetically by, for example, converting it into a surrealist fantasy?

Notwithstanding the context in which they had to perform, two of the soloists emerged with much credit. Tenor Cyrille Dubois was an agile hero, most convincingly perplexed by the seemingly endless predicaments in which he found himself and singing with a remarkable purity of tone. He was well matched by Anne-Catherine Gillet shifting from one disguise to another and adeptly warbling up and down the coloratura passages. In the pit Patrick Davin offered a well-paced, light-handed account of the score.