Pigmalion – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Ballot de Sovot
Anacréon – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Louis de Cahusac [1754 version]
[both sung in French with English surtitles]
Pigmalion – Daniel Auchinloss
La Statue – Katherine Manley
L’Amour – Anna Dennis
Céphise – Susanna Hurrell
Anacréon – Matthew Brook
Chloé – Anna Dennis
Batile – Agustin Prunell-Friend
Les Plaisirs des Nations
Choir of the Enlightenment
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Edith Lalonger – Choregraphy
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 9 October, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
The second instalment of the collaboration between the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Jonathan Williams’s The Rameau Project (in the 250th-anniversary year of the composer’s death) brought a charming double-bill of one-Act operas. As before, the choreography was provided by Edith Lalonger and Les Plaisirs des Nations, whose dances played a more integrated part in these short dramatic works (each termed an acte de ballet) than in many of Rameau’s full-length stage pieces. The ballet is not confined only to the end of either work (even if their brevity and simplistic narratives seem to be merely the excuse for a terpsichorean spectacle) since dance numbers are threaded among the vocal items. These performances were an attempt at recreating the sort of routines that Rameau would have known and, moreover, there was a mannered (or rather mannerist) approach to some of the gestured acting which also suggested a Baroque ethos at work.
Both dramas celebrate love through the resolution of their protagonists’ apparently hopeless romantic situations. In the case of Pigmalion (1748) that comes through the eponymous character’s being infatuated with the inanimate statue crafted by his own hands; in Anacréon it is that Chloé and Batile are too shy to confess their love. Anna Dennis was the only singer common to both performances, offering an exemplary characterisation of L’Amour in the former – intervening radiantly to bring the statue to life; and an empathetic realisation of Chloé in the other, believing her unspoken love for Batile to be thwarted when Anacréon mischievously arranges a marriage feast for her, apparently to join her to somebody else, but in fact to incite her and Batile to recognise the bond of love between them. As Chloé, Dennis brought out palpable fear, then exquisite joy in the music. Only her imitation of the breezes and the birds slightly faltered.
The OAE’s way with the dances at the end of Pigmalion seemed to mirror the fate of the Statue herself, as they emerged from a comparative listlessness into liveliness. Much of the dancers’ choreography followed the course of the music closely as the Graces, in their hooped skirts, played their games of love with their male companions. The OAE was perhaps more successful in the extrovert numbers, under Williams’s robust conducting, than in the more courtly, refined dances, where a touch more elegance would have provided greater contrast. However that had not been an issue in the Overture when the bold opening section was succeeded with the streamlined approach of the next section’s running figurations.
Where the dancers had appeared in standard European 18th-century dress for Pigmalion, they wore Turkish attire for the festivities in Anacréon, complementing Rameau’s scoring with percussion in some of the movements. An additional dancer joined the merry revels as Bacchus, to provide extra drunken abandon.
As Chloé and Batile’s mentor, Matthew Brook’s Anacréon made for both a kindly and authoritative figure as he furthered their love with sincere affection as well as harmless stratagems. Agustin Prunell-Friend revealed Batile’s amorous earnestness in the yearning quality of his high tenor (though not quite haute-contre) singing.
Both these productions and Zaïs earlier in the year have been worthwhile ventures, confirming the stature of Rameau as one of the consummate masters of music-drama in the Baroque, or indeed of any, age. It would be a shame if these performers, or any others, could not explore the rich store of his opera-ballets in future years when there will not be the artificial excuse of an anniversary to observe.