- Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Moliere
Le Bourgeois gentilhomme is generally regarded as Molière's most "integrated" comédie-ballet. There is a certain irony, then, that Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord's production wound up showcasing France's own struggles with integration. Molière and Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote Le Bourgeois gentilhomme as a comédie-ballet for a lavish court spectacle in 1670 at the order of King Louis XIV, who had requested an entertaining Turkish masquerade after a strained [End Page 273] visit from an envoy of the Ottoman Empire. The result is the story of Monsieur Jourdain (Pascal Rénéric), the buffoonish cloth merchant who longs to become a "person of quality." Jourdain finally achieves his fantasy of acquired social status when he is falsely given the title "Mamamouchi" during the comédie-ballet's farcical climax. Act 4's la cérémonie turque is an absurd Orientalist spectacle of dervishes, turbans, and carpets in which characters mock the Turkish language and Islamic prayer. Molière even calls for using the Koran as a comic prop (although this production refrained from doing so). Le Bourgeois gentilhomme was written as France was beginning its colonial ascendancy, but had not yet claimed large swaths of land with Muslim residents. What does it mean, then, to stage the same work in contemporary postcolonial France? Jourdain's foibles offer splendid opportunities for linguistic and physical hilarity during the first three acts; however, in a country with about 5 million Muslims and an immigrant population that often seems socially alienated and politically marginalized, the dilemma of how to produce Le Bourgeois gentilhomme at state-supported theatres reveals fraught tensions between France's past and future.
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Director Denis Podalydès, a sociétaire of the Comédie-Française since 2000, staged Le Bourgeois gentilhomme with Lully's music and the four dance intermèdes (but not the full Ballet des Nations after-piece). Exploiting the creative opportunities offered by a comédie-ballet made perfect sense. Olivier Mantéi (formerly of the Opéra-Comique) and Olivier Poubelle took over the Bouffes du Nord from Peter Brook in 2011, and the theatre's aim, as stated on its website, is to offer "true marriages between music, theatre, opera and dance." In collaboration with the young choreographer Kaori Ito and musical director Christophe Coin, Podalydès created an interpretation that was modern in movement and mannerisms. At the same time, the production successfully evoked the world of the seventeenth-century nobility and the bourgeois domestic realm, deftly showcasing Molière's satire of France's class system. Set designer Éric Ruf (also a sociétaire) intentionally cluttered the upstage area with the "skimpy luxury" and material realities of the Jourdains' working life, including semi-unraveled bolts of fabric lining the back wall. With the members of l'Ensemble Baroque de Limoges far stage left, the downstage area had enough empty space to allow the actors and dancers full physical expression. Rénéric was charismatic and brilliant as M. Jourdain, ingratiating himself to the audience with direct appeals for sympathy and praise as he limped in his tight new shoes and sang quite horribly. Although Rénéric shone brightest, the production was a remarkable [End Page 274] example of ensemble work. The four dancers wore simple black leotards and tights and were sometimes masked in the manner of commedia dell'arte, while Ito's contemporary movement choices veered from balletic precision to languid modern dance and the jerky angularity of krumping. The resulting pastiche created its own kind of coherence for the intermèdes. Cécile Granger's mellifluous soprano reminded the audience of how much is lost when Lully's music is removed from the piece. Costume designer Christian Lacroix...