Sunday 8 October 2017

Rare opportunity: Rameau's Dardanus at ETO

ETO - Dardanus - Edward Jowle, Alessandro Fisher, Timothy Nelson, Katy Thomson, Eleanor Penfold, Mikel Uskola, Edward Jowle (Photo Jane Hobson)
ETO - Dardanus - Edward Jowle, Alessandro Fisher, Timothy Nelson, Katy Thomson, Grant Doyle, Mikel Uskola
(Photo Jane Hobson)
Rameau Dardanus; Galina Averina, Anthony Gregory, Timothy Nelson, Grant Doyle, Frederick Long, dir: Douglas Rintoul, cond: Jonathan Williams; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 6 2017 Star rating: 3.5
A rare outing for Rameau's opera gives much to celebrate, with intense performances from the principals

ETO - Dardanus - Galina Averina (Photo Jane Hobson)
Galina Averina (Photo Jane Hobson)
Whilst Handel's Italian operas have almost become mainstream with UK opera companies, staged performances of operas by his French contemporary Rameau are still rare, so congratulations to English Touring Opera (ETO) for boldly going... 

Theatre director Douglas Rintoul's new production of Rameau's Dardanus debuted at the Hackney Empire on 6 October 2017 in tandem with ETO's production of Handel's Giulio Cesare (see my review). Galina Averina sang Iphise with Anthony Gregory as Dardanus, plus Grant Doyle as Teucer, Timothy Nelson as Antenor, Alessandro Fisher as Arcas, and Frederick Long as Ismenor. Jonathan Williams conducted the Old Street Band.

Like many Rameau operas, Dardanus has a complex textual history. The legendary Dardanus, son Jupiter, is credited with the founding of Troy with the aid of Teucer, King of the Phyrgians. Rameau and his librettist Charles-Antoine Leclerc de La Bruere concocted a back story with Dardanus and Teucer at war and Dardanus and Teucer's daughter Iphise in love with each other. The first version, premiered in 1739 had lots of extraneous spectacle including a sea monster which gave weakness to the plot. Revisions in 1744 and 1760 removed most of these and Rameau seemed to be pushing the piece into the direction of Gluck's concentrated French operas. ETO performed the work in a new edition (based on the 1744 and 1760 revision) by Gilles Rico, and this was the first UK staging of the 1744 version.

ETO - Dardanus - Anthony Gregory (Photo Jane Hobson)
Anthony Gregory (Photo Jane Hobson)
The problem with Rameau's operas, and French tragedie lyrique in general, is the dramaturgical difficulty presented by the combination of aria, chorus and dance. Whether period or modern, productions need to find a way of making dance an essential part of the drama (something which was done well in David McVicar's 2013 production of Charpentier's Medee at ENO, see my review). For this new production Douglas Rintoul and Jonathan Williams seem to have decided to ignore the problem entirely, some dance movements were cut, others were used as scene change entractes and what remained (including the long concluding divertissements) used as back drop for hi-jinks and ceremony from the chorus. There was no dance, crucially no choreographer involved, and these scenes seemed less a part of the drama and more a case of find something to do on stage whilst Rameau's lovely music played.

Perhaps the problem was the setting. Whilst Cordelia Chisholm's set is common to both the Rameau and Handel productions, here the setting was a modern conflict, with a large gravel pit at its centre making stage action tricky. Now Rameau's operas were written at a time when war did not preclude dance and entertainment, when the French royal court could go on progress to see the war effort. The opera is not about war, the conflict is more a device to keep Dardanus and Iphise apart for nearly five acts. But Rintoul set the piece in the context of a modern conflict, total war, everyone wore fatigues so the presence of dance here would be jejeune.

Thankfully we had performances from the principals full of concentrated intensity and passion.

ETO - Dardanus - Timothy Nelson (Photo Jane Hobson)
ETO - Dardanus - Timothy Nelson (Photo Jane Hobson)
Galina Averina sang Iphise with poise and not a little elegance. She made us care for the character over a long five acts when Iphise undergoes virtually no character development. She starts off in love with her enemy, and barely makes a diversion from this until the late part of Act Four. Thankfully Averina really did hold our attention, bringing out the intensity in the music without compromising the line. She should also be commended for walking through the gravel pit in high heels with such aplomb.

That Anthony Gregory sang the high lying line of Dardanus' haut-contre part and survived is something in itself. But he did so whilst singing with concentrated intensity and giving Dardanus the necessary heroic ping (he is after all an action character, not a drip). He made us care for the character, and given the trials and travails he was going through, a little roughness of tone was acceptable. I certainly hope we get to hear him in an haut-contre role again. Between them Gregory and Averina carried the bulk of the drama, and made us really believe in these ridiculously moral and scrupulous people, bringing a very human quality to their suffering. Passages from their Act Four prison scene are astonishing, and really made you understand why ETO chose to present the piece for all the opera's faults.

The piece is essentially a love triangle, Timothy Nelson's Antenor is betrothed to Iphise and connives at Dardanus's death to free Iphise from her attraction. Nelson took some time to settle down and accustom himself to Antenor's high baritone line. His opening scenes had an unfortunate tendency to wander in tuning, but by his crucial final death scene, Nelson sang with moving commitment and showed he will settle into the role well.

ETO - Dardanus - Anthony Gregory, Frederick Long (Photo Jane Hobson)
Anthony Gregory, Frederick Long (Photo Jane Hobson)
As Iphise's father Teucer, Grant Doyle was all prickly militarism and morality, Doyle's strong personality managing to articulate the important but two dimensional character. Alessandro Fisher was suitable oily as Arcas who encourages Antenor to arrange Dardanus' death.

The magical element was not entirely removed from the opera in Rameau's revisions, but unfortunately the role of the prophet Isemnor is rather unclear and his interventions seemed to almost make matters worse. Frederick Long as Ismenor, however, was suitably vivid and almost convinced us.

The hard working members of the chorus (Eleanor Penfold, Katy Thomson, Edward Jowle, Mikel Uskola Cobos) invested their role with considerable energy, and Eleanor Penfold made a lovely Venus at the end, her simple brilliant white dress forming a fine contrast to the drabness of the other costumes.

There were other aspects to the production which did not seem quite settled. Jonathan Williams' conducting seemed a trifle too hectic and there were ensemble problems between stage and pit which no doubt will settle down during the run. The orchestral playing sounded too busily hectic, and though there were some individual instrumental delights, overall it seemed as if the band had not yet got Rameau in its bones the way it had with the previous nights' Handel.

ETO - Dardanus (Photo Jane Hobson)
English Touring Opera - Dardanus (Photo Jane Hobson)
These cavils notwithstanding, there was much to celebrate with this production.That it happened at all was such a big positive, and it was clear from the first night audience filling the Hackney Empire that London's operati had turned out in force to experience a rare Rameau staging, let us hope that it attracts similar audiences on the other stops of the tour. And with principals like Galina Averina and Anthony Gregory, there was much to hold our attention across this fascinating piece.

Recordings: With two such vastly differing versions of the opera (1739 and 1744) a listener has to choose (or buy both!).
  • 1739: Mark Minkowski on Archiv opts for the 1739 version, full of lovely music and perhaps best heard on CD rather than worrying about dramatic inconsistencies on stage (available from Amazon).
  • 1744: Raphael Pichon on Alpha opts for 1744 (complete with the allegorical prologue omitted by ETO), also available on Amazon
  • 1739+1744: Alternatively you might consider an older generation of recording, Raymond Leppard, with Frederica von Stade and Christane Eda-Pierre, opts for a conflation of 1739 and 1744 (available from Amazon).

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