Les Boréades – Blowing the cobwebs away (19 June)

Rameau
Les Boréades

Alphise, Queen of Bactria – Anna Mara Panzarella
Abaris – Paul Agnew
Sémire, the Queen’s confidante – Jaël Azzaretti
A Nymph / Polymnie – Hanna Bayodi
Calisis – Toby Spence
Borilée – Stéphane Degout
Boréas, God of the North Wind – Laurent Naouri
Adames, high priest of Apollo / Apollo – Nicolas Rivenq
L’Amour (Cupid) – Théo Joulia Demory
A priest of Apollo – Sahdi Torbey

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 19 June, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Les Arts Florissants’ continuing relationship with the Barbican returned to the firmer dramatic footing of a full-scale opera after the curious ’Jardin des Voix’ affair at the back end of last year, which certainly found some beautiful voices but allowed their owners some disastrous overacting to make that evening more pantomime than serious opera.

Here is one of those truly ’lost masterpieces’ – Rameau’s last opera. Les Boréades was never given a full performance in his lifetime and was not properly ’rediscovered’ until 1964 (the bi-centenary of Rameau’s death) and then not fully staged until 1982. That production, at Aix en Provence, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner was recorded and issued in 1990 [ERATO 2292-45572-2] but released without libretto or translation. The extraordinary, coruscating explanation for that was quite blatant. The publisher, Editions Stil, had “made it impossible to print the Les Boréades libretto, firstly by forbidding its translation and, secondly, by demanding for its reproduction in French very high royalties for each box set, even though the work is protected and this editor is paid for editing it by copyrighting companies.” The Barbican’s programme credited the translation [© Editions Stil] to Catherine Attwood and “reviewed” by Michael Seiler, as dating from the same year as Rattle’s staged performances at the Salzburg Festival, which came in a semi-staged version to the Proms. Those who caught Les Boréades then, July 1998, may recall the hiatus, “legal difficulties,” over the provision of libretto and translation, only resolved shortly before the performance, the libretto arriving late.

At the Barbican we were allowed the translation by way of surtitles.

I hope that such problems are well and truly over, and that Les Boréades can receive its due. Although, according to Time Out detailing a tiff between Paris Opera and Le Monde, the production from which this concert performance emanated was characterised by “epileptic and amphetamine dancing, a chic and cheap staging, with minimalist décor that would suite a Calvin Klein boutique.” No-one, though, could complain about William Christie and his forces who – perhaps because they had come straight from a staged production – seemed relaxed and happy to sing and play their hearts out for a packed Barbican audience who greeted the performance with gleeful acclamation.

The singers – chorus included – were unhindered by scores, while the soloists had ample area to interact as though on stage. Most of this worked a treat, although the Boréades of the title (’descendants of Boreas’) – played by Toby Spence and Stéphane Degout – should in future follow the maxim that ’less is more’. Degout had the unnerving habit of, policeman-like, bobbing to the beat (no pun intended), while Spence was hyperactive, especially in the Act Three celebration-song “Jouissons de nos beaux ans”, where he reminded me of the non-PC “Black and White Minstrel Show” with his arched back, open arms and waggling hands. If he had been blacked up, with white gloves, he could have been impersonating Al Jolson! Mind you, there was something odd about the dress. Spence in the first hour was in a lounge suit, changing into a dinner jacket in the first interval. There seemed no explanation for this, unless his DJ had been delayed getting to the Hall. The treble, Théo Joulia Demory, wore his school jumper and Paul Agnew an open-necked white shirt. Odd, especially as the other men were in full (if outsize) concert regalia.

But to the piece itself and its typically convoluted baroque tale of love contested, thwarted, challenged, kidnapped, and freed. Add in the choice of a new King for Bactria and the populace voting for the winner (as Graham Sadler in the programme note pointed out, this was only 25 years before the French Revolution!) and the plot complications are not difficult to predict. Given that it is set in Bactria, there had to be not one but two rivals for Alphise’s love (in addition to orphan Abaris, her personal choice) – both of whom, obviously, get the hump!

Christie presided over a performance that revelled in the fun of the piece. Yes it is meant to be dramatic and serious, but it is packed full of dance movements, which allowed the orchestra to show off without the afore-mentioned choreography as a distraction. Anna Mara Panzarella as Queen Alphise who, by tradition, has to marry a descendent of the god of the North Wind Boreas, was more rounded in tone than Barbara Bonney was at the Proms. Her steadfast rejection of both Calisis and Borilée (the Spence and Degout double-act) was handled for the most part with a sense of jest, while Paul Agnew, a Christie regular, sang eloquently and affectingly as Abaris, who – in the end – is revealed as Apollo’s son by a female descendent of Boreas. So all is well!

Before that revelation, our heroine abdicates and, with the political situation in Bactria in chaos, she is abducted by the winds, with Rameau’s orchestral invention utilising a wind-machine (the LAF’s percussionist walking off to appear in the open aperture behind the stage for the storm effects). Alphise is held hostage by Laurent Naouri’s edgy and irritable Boréas until she chooses between Calisis and Borilée, while she stays steadfast to Abaris. Only after Abaris is declared a bona-fide Boréade can the final celebrations take place.

At once thrilling and entertaining, Christie lovingly coaxed his regular forces to exceed their usual impeccable standards. An interesting orchestral layout had the continuo group to his right, flutes right in front of him, with violas next in line, before the rest of the wind and brass, while the main rank of basses was over to his left. His singers were alternated, male, female, and not regimented by voice type, allowing an aural spread that was more natural than we come to expect from concert performances.

I can only hope that such immaculate preparation results in a recording (although Erato, Christie’s long-time collaborator, has the only other recording, as detailed above). Meanwhile Barbican audiences need not hesitate in booking up for Christie and LAF’s two visits next season: Handel’s Xerxes (although that should probably be Serse as it will surely be sung in the original Italian) with Anne-Sofie von Otter on 28 November and then a Charpentier evening on 20 January 2004.

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