Thursday 6 November 2008

Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican

For their latest visit to the Barbican, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants gave us 3 acts from Rameau's comedie ballet Les Indes Galantes.

This was Rameau's 2nd major operatic work, coming just after the tragedie lyrique Hippolyte et Aricie. The new work was a vastly different style, lighter with more emphasis on dance and with a different plot for each act. One of the features of the genre was that each act was separate. Rameau expanded and revised the work over the years so that at its first showing there were fewer acts than now. So Christie's decision to present just 3 acts made perfect sense. Without dancers, sets or costumes, the work could never have quite the same impact. Though the women's dresses were all designed by Christian Lacroix, which added a strong element of style to the proceedings.

The young cast were a wide variety of nationalities with only Stephane Degout being a native French speaker. Though their diction was excellent, Degout's was noticeably more idiomatic than the rest. Ed Lyons started off sounding a little too English but by his 2nd appearance in the final act, he was far more convincing.

We were presented with the acts set in Turkey, Peru and America; each dealt with a love triangle in some way and love always triumphed. Though the large cast (6 singers) were spread across the 3 acts, the show was something of a showcase for Portugese bass Joao Fernandes who was the only singer to appear in all 3 acts.

Musically the evening was triumph with all the singers displaying a good feeling for Rameau's style. We also had some lovely voices and some fine musicality. Sometimes with shows by Les Arts Florissants you get the feeling that with the voices, style triumphs over substance and voice quality, but not here. I felt sorry not to hear more of Spanish tenor Juan Sancho who only appeared in the Peruvian act. Similarly mezzo Juliette Glastian impressed in the Turkish act; but Sony Yoncheva was able to display her winning personality and pert stage manner in both the Turkish and American acts.

The singers performed off the book, moved around and generally 'acted' their roles. No producer was credited. I felt that a slightly stronger hand was needed on the directorial side. Some singers, like Stephane Degout, rightly felt that less was more and he impressed with his stage performance. But Fernandes did rather over-do the dramatics some times and rather needed reining in; this was particularly true in the American act where Rameau's characterisation verges on cariacature; Fernandes came dangerously close to giving a Mr. Bean impression ('Mr. Bean goes to the Opera' perhaps?).

The chorus started out placed behind the orchestra but they too sang without scores and moved about, making entrances and exists. This was inevitably a little distracting, but did add to the general aura of it being a real dramatic event. The only miscalculation was in having them sing from the front of the stage, placed either side of the orchestra. Communication seemed less than perfect and there were occasional moments when the two wings of the chorus got a little out of synch.

Naturally, musician ship was perfect and in the best possible taste. This was a lovely evening of Rameau, beautifully performed and thoughtfully presented.

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