Grimeborn Opera 2023 – Jacquet de la Guerre’s Céphale et Procris

Jacquet de la Guerre
Céphale et Procris – Opera in five Acts and a Prologue to a libretto by Joseph-François Duché de Vancy after an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses [sung in French with English surtitles]

Céphale – Kieran White
Procris – Poppy Shotts
L’Aurore – Helen May
Arcas – Marcio da Silva
Dorine – Anna-Luise Wagner
Borée – Jack Lawrence-Jones
Flore – Tara Venkatesan
Pan / Erictée – Flávio Lauria
Iphis – Lydia Ward
Nerée – John Twitchen
Jalousie – Jay Rockwell

Ensemble OrQuesta
Marcio da Silva

Marcio da Silva & Benjamin Riedel – Directors
Marcio da Silva – Lighting, Set, Costumes & Choreography
Heitor Granafei – Dramaturg 

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 29 August, 2023
Venue: Arcola Theatre, Dalston, London

Céphale et Procris was the first opera written in France by a woman (Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, premiered in 1694, though in his programme notes, this production’s director indicates that there is apparently evidence that it may have been composed before that, perhaps as early as 1687 following the death of Lully and the end of his stranglehold on French opera). For various reasons it wasn’t successful on its first run, and it is only in recent decades that it has been rediscovered and revived, despite manuscripts missing some parts. The work is fair game, then, as more or less a blank slate for a director to interpret it afresh without the burden of any particular performance traditions. A few minor reservations aside, Marcio da Silva powerfully and urgently enlivens this opera which follows the typical format of the French Baroque genre in opening with a Prologue that serves as an allegorical homage to the king (Louis XIV) followed by the re-telling of a Classical myth.

da Silva suggests (somewhat tenuously) that the composer was exploring a female perspective upon the narrative, by citing the forward character of Dorine, who demonstrates herself as a free agent in love by talking about it cynically and refusing to submit to standard social expectations about women in respect of it. That argument is exaggerated as such female characters appeared in Venetian operatic comedies throughout the 17th century (albeit invariably sung by men in drag) but otherwise da Silva’s starting point is none the worse or less valid for that. This also remains the case even as he wishes to present Céphale ‘with female characteristics’ – seemingly for no other real reason than that, of the two central characters, it is (the nominally male) Céphale who has by far the larger role and so, necessarily, has to be subsumed within such a feminist dimension. In reality, though, other than having (the bearded) Kieran White clad in a generously hooped skirt to match Procris, it is not at all clear what other female characteristics are brought out. da Silva also refers to using ‘symbolic costumes to represent ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits’ without specifying further details. It seems to be that the pure white of the principal protagonists’ dress and their cohort, are counterpoised by the black suits of the gods and other figures opposed to them, but that contrast is just as likely to register as the confrontation between good and evil than as a contrast between the sexes.

Those caveats aside the director packs in a range of symbols and gestures in this production (extracts from his own notes are quoted at the end of this review out of interest, rather than merely setting out here what cannot be more comprehensively summarised). On paper it sounds like the ritual of an ancient mystery cults that is to unfold. But what actually comes across is a visually and choreographically well-integrated vision of the work that takes some inspiration from the careful, stylised gestures and stage positioning of Baroque theatre, in the service of an intensely personal, emotional drama that plays out the thwarted love of the two central characters who meet their deaths after the jealous deceptions of others. That is all the more effective in the small space of the Arcola Theatre, where the performance takes place not quite in the round, but at least within the embrace of three sides of a rectangle. That culminates with the sensitive and, in a sense, lyrically handled reinterpretation of Procris’s enforced marriage to Borée, as a rape – not violently or sensationally enacted, but no less powerful for that.

The challenge to patriarchal authority is carried through into the musical performance, starting in the Prologue with the hectoring – rather than reverential – account by the assembled allegorical figures, lauding a new day and Louis XIV’s military prowess, as a coppery bust is unceremoniously passed around an empty throne, before a peremptory gesture alludes to the revolutionary affront to the monarchy in 1789.

The dichotomy between sincere and harassing amorous affections continues in the principal drama, the former with the generally tender, controlled performances by White and Poppy Shotts as Céphale and Procris; White’s achievement is particularly notable in this haute-contre (i.e. high tenor) role in that his singing is resilient and even, without strain or stress in the high notes. The performances by their opponents are marked by a musically inflected aggression or vehemence, especially on the part of Jack Lawrence-Jones’s forcefully eloquent Borée and Helen May’s formidable L’Aurore. The vocal contrast between such antagonists is ironically reversed in the case of the more comic altercations between Dorine and Arcas where it is Anna-Luise Wagner who feistily fends off da Silva’s more plaintive protestations of love which irritate her character. 

Ensemble OrQuesta, led by da Silva when not on stage but also ably anchored by Predrag Gosta on the harpsichord, provide detailed and animated accompaniment, which regularly switches between supporting the voices – very often in ariosos and airs, rather than plain recitative (and therefore constituting a more melodious score than Lully’s operas typically are) – and instrumental interludes. The work is an important stepping-stone in the development of French opera between Lully and Rameau, and even if only for musical reasons this long overdue revival is worth hearing by fans of Baroque opera. But the production offers an engaging and subtle contemporary take upon its standard formulae and so never feels stilted.

Further performances to 2 September

From the director’s note: ‘The set for the production is deliberately bare, but there are several symbolic elements that are designed to allow additional strands of interpretation to develop and enhance the storyline. […..] The presence of the universal symbol of the circle throughout the production – in the costumes, in floor markings, and in some of the choreography – is intrinsic to my interpretation. In dramatic terms, the circle represents original perfection, wholeness, timelessness, the Self. For Céphale and Procris it also represents the confines and constraints of their life – their inability to fight their own destinies. Other floor markings show the path taken by the main characters as they move towards the centre circle where they will meet their fate. The floor markings also depict the symbol of the Christian cross, included here to represent the role that the early church and other religions played in fostering prejudice regarding the unequal role of women in society. The audience may also wish to better understand the rationale behind the strips of paper suspended from the ceiling. I wanted to find a way to represent what was happening to Céphale and Procris as individuals and as love partners as the narrative evolved. The strips are designed to signify different aspects of their identity and personal integrity. These are ‘under attack’ and are eliminated in response to encounters or incidents in the drama.’

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