Monday 4 September 2023

Baroque rarity: Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre's Céphale et Procris at the Grimeborn Festival

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre: Céphale et Procris; Ensemble OrQuesta
Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre: Céphale et Procris
Ensemble OrQuesta

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre: Céphale et Procris; Ensemble OrQuesta, Marcio da Silva; Grimeborn Festival Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 30th August 2023

Rare production of baroque opera from a female composer

Premiered in 1694, French composer Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre's Céphale et Procris was not a success and only ran for five or six performances before disappearing from the stage. The work was revived in the late 20th century and is, however, still rarely staged. Were it not for its milestone significance in being the first published French opera by a female composer, it has little to distinguish it musically from other post-Lully stage works of the late 1600's, with an almost stereotypical plot set in classical Athens.

Jacquet de La Guerre's Céphale et Procris was performed at Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival (seen 30 August) by Marcio da Silva's Ensemble OrQuesta with Kieran White as Céphale and Poppy Shotts as Procris. The dynamic one-man force of nature that is Marcio da Silva has committed everything in his power towards the success of this production, directing, conducting, producing a new edition of the score, performing in the orchestra and even appearing in the small role of Arcas. It can't be denied that the production has some successful moments. Although the nature of the drama strived and ultimately failed to escape its 17th Century sensibilities, it still had plenty of elegance, style and moved through the many short musical episodes with a surefooted and rapid pace.

One of the criticisms levelled at this opera in the past was the poor literary quality of the libretto, and its confused plot, and the clunky translations (projected into odd corners of the theatre where not all audience members could see them) did nothing to dispel this notion. This new edition of the score was a golden opportunity to create or commission a modern English translation, which would have been extremely effective in the intimate space of the small Arcola Theatre. It should also be mentioned that while mostly fine, it was apparent throughout the evening that there was a variable degree of skill and knowledge of French pronunciation from the cast, making the surtitles a requirement, especially to identify the characters, as the cast were mostly dressed and made-up in the same way, even when playing multiple roles.

There was, it must be said, plenty to praise in this production. The small orchestra of period instrument specialists were lively and engaging, providing a range of continuo colours and displaying some beautifully phrased melodic lines from the violins and woodwinds. The addition of percussion at various moments served to underpin the dance origins of much of the musical material, and the tempi, even in the more sensual moments, were never allowed to drag. This was some really quite fine baroque chamber playing, from musicians who seemed to have a genuine rapport with each other and a respect for the music.

On the stage, the young cast were somewhat uneven in approach. Certainly there were no weak voices, although there were some rather unpleasant moments of ensemble tuning. The many roles were divided across the ten singers, who also came together as choruses of shepherds, gods, Athenians and so on. The choreography of these choral moments was well executed, and fairly abstracted from the action. It didn't detract from the music, nor could it be described as staged action.

To conclude, it would be fair to describe this as a mixed bag. There was some excellent singing, and much wonderful playing, but in the service of a composition and production which often felt enthusiastically amateur. 

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

Marcio da Silva - Music/Stage Director, Lighting, Set/Costumes, Choreography, Conductor
Kieran White - Céphale
Poppy Shotts - Procris
Helen May - L'Aurore
Jack Lawrence-Jones - Borée
Flavio Lauria - Pan
Anna-Luise Wagner - Dorine
Tara Venky - Flore
Jay Rockwell - La Haine
John Twitcham - un Dieux de la Mer
Marcio da Silva - Arcas

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