There is no doubt that it is a very entertaining evening bright and colourful on stage and truly wonderful in the crowded pit the problem is that it is probably too entertaining. José Montalvo, bright young Spanish-born director and gymnastic-trained Dominique Hervieu have taken a childish glee to the look and feel of the production. This was like Play School or Tellytubbies or, worse, Godspell set to baroque music, and within minutes it amounted to sensory overload.
Bright primary colours each dancer or singer wearing at least two if not three were the order of the day and Montalvo and Hervieu conspired to heighten the effect with unremitting energetic dancing, including an over-indulgent use of body popping. Admittedly this was less out of place than in the Châtelets production of Strausss Arabella (seen earlier this year at Covent Garden) where the ball scene was definitely the wrong place for a body-popping lackey, and I can understand why Rameaus sprung rhythms would seem neatly encapsulated in a visible, limb-shaking form but even here less, Im sure, would have meant more. I had the wicked thought that at an early rehearsal all participants had been asked to waggle to Rameau and they never stopped waggling.
But that was not all. Montalvo has revelled in the possibilities of using video projection. Whether its bouncing people (they were the only ones in anything like baroque costumes), or the appearance of a multitude of peacocks, often slowly unveiling their feathered splendour, lions, tigers, rabbits, flamingos, ducks, horses and a Bactrian camel really aided our understanding of the plot, or was an admission by Montalvo that he wasnt convinced about the quality Rameaus work so he needed to throw any idea at it, I cant decide. There was some beguiling intricacy live dancers versus video dancers, appearing and disappearing through all-but-invisible slits in the three levels of white-sheeted set, all-too-ideal for video projection but again it was overused. Occasionally a number of nude video bodies would scurry down the screen to unveil another level underneath. It all seemed indicative of the production that the left side of this group was simply a mirror image of the right hand group. Perhaps if Id been more engaged with the production and not feeling totally mind-boggled at the overload then I might not have noticed such a fact.
And all this frivolity obscured a truly ravishing score. True, it might not be a particularly profound work, but 77-year-old Rameau certainly didnt skimp on his melodic or vocal invention. Christie, squeezed into the pit with the 50-odd players of Les Arts Florissants, gave a spirited account of the score with its daft tale of Argie, who is loved by both the Paladin Atis and her older mentor Anselme. She and her maid Nérine escape from her guard Orcan and join Atis disguised as pilgrims. When pursued by a now vengeful Anselme into a castle, suddenly the surroundings are transformed magically into a Chinese palace (here a stately French chateau and its gardens) where Anselme is seduced by the fairy Manto allowing Argie to pair off with Atis.
Its not particularly taxing, but the moments of repose in Rameaus wonderful score should have been better reflected in the staging. The worst moment is at the beginning of Act Three, when a live trampoliner is partnered by any number of combinations of video trampolining partners. No problem against the orchestral prelude, but fatal when Argie comes on to sing ardently of her love for Atis. The staging went completely against the music.
The very frantic nature of the production sometimes negated the enjoyment of the musical performances. However, particularly fine were the young lovers Topi Lehtipuu a Finnish Ian Bostridge (but surely a better dancer) and Stéphanie dOustrac a beguiling Argie, although her beauty of vocal line was compromised by the bizarre costume that saw her in red hot pants for most of the evening.
After the release of Les Boréades on DVD there will no doubt be a DVD of Les Paladins. It would be better for only a CD release where the production can remain a distant memory rather than an ever-present curse. The single joke of the production wore very thin very quickly although there was a perfect use of helium filled balloons that will remain long in the memory.
However, let that not stop the continued collaboration between Les Arts Florissants and the Barbican.
- Further performances on 21 & 22 October at 7.15