I’m not a huge fan of French baroque opera but I am a huge fan of Robert Carsen which is why I had a look at the DVD recording of his 2003 Paris Garnier production of Rameau’s Les Boréades. I’m still not a huge fan of French baroque but Carsen certainly makes the most of the work on offer.
Les Boréades was composed for the court of Louis XVI and contains some fairly subversive ideas given that context. Unfortunately the music is more conventional than the libretto. For reasons not fully understood it was not performed as intended and didn’t get a fully staged performance until 1982. The plot is fairly simple. Alphise, Queen of Bactria, is in love with Abaris, whose origins are unknown. According to the traditions of her country, Alphise must marry a Boread, one of the descendants of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. Determined to marry Abaris, Alphise abdicates, angering Boreas who storms into the wedding and abducts Alphise to his kingdom. With the help of Apollo and the muse Polyhymnia, Abaris sets off to rescue her. He challenges Boreas and his sons with a magic golden arrow. Apollo descends as deus ex machina and reveals that Abaris is really his son by a Boread nymph. Therefore, there is no longer any obstacle to Abaris and Alphise’s marriage. Musically, it’s very much of it’s type. There’s a lot of recitative, ballets are stuck in at every opportunity, the chorus is kept fairly busy but there are very few arias or ensembles. It’s all very civilized but the emotional range seems very limited. I was a bit surprised to discover that Rameau was an almost exact contemporary of Handel because his music sounds much more old fashioned. Even more surprising to me is that Les Boréades was written after Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice which seems to exist on a whole other emotional plane.
The performances on the DVD are first rate. Barbara Bonney is Alphise and actually manages to wring some genuine emotion out once or twice. In between she’s very accomplished and stylish. Paul Agnew has the difficult haut contre role of Abaris and he is musically excellent though never finding an real humanity in the part. Laurent Naouri has the cameo role of Boreas and camps it up splendidly. Toby Spence and Stephane Degout are well contrasted and at times quite nasty Boreads. The singers are excellent they just don’t have much to work with. William Christie leads Les Arts Florissants in the pit and they do what they do with their customary excellence. The ballets have the best music and Christie manages to inject some real verve in places.
Carsen’s production is interesting and effective. There are two main ideas going on. There’s the cycle of the seasons; the five acts take us from summer through fall to winter and back to spring. There’s also a clearly visually defined split between the forces controlled by Boreas, wearing charcoal suits and carrying umbrellas (apparently supposed to be a 1940s Dior look) and the Apollonians or ‘people of light’ who wear sleepwear or underwear in light, sunny colours. Carsen reinforces the dualism, as he often does, with dramatic use of lighting to convey mood. The lighting designer is Peter van Praet who has worked on many Carsen productions. There’s a lot of scattering of stuff from upturned umbrellas; flowers, autumnal leaves, snow etc which is then ritually cleared as the acts progress. It works and creates some visual interest as the drama plays out rather slowly. The dark/light theme is resolved in the final scene as Abaris strips off Alphise’s Dior suit to reveal a light coloured shift. At the curtain call even Boreas and the Boreads shed their suits and join the ‘people of light’.
The best bit of the production though is the use of dance. Carsen uses Édouard Lock and his Montreal based company, La La La Human Steps, for the ballets. It’s a touch of genius. Most of the time they use a very dynamic, almost percussive style. The vocabulary is classical ballet but they manage multiple steps and gestures on each beat to inject an energy which is often lacking in the music. Only in Act 4 does the choreography relax into a more obviously baroque tempo and then not for long. I’ve seen enough baroque ballet in Opera Atelier productions to know what a snooze fest this would have been if a more historically accurate approach had been taken for the dance elements.
The direction and packaging for DVD is decidedly above average. It’s an Opus Arte production so no real surprise there. Video direction is by Thomas Grimm and it’s a decent balance of close ups and ‘what one sees in the house’ shots. The picture is standard DVD quality 16:9. Sound is either LPCM stereo or Dolby 5.1. The Dolby track is nicely balanced between orchestra and voices. There’s an hour long bonus track of interviews with creative team and cast. Miraculously for a DVD production the booklet includes the libretto. There are English, German, French and Spanish subtitles. The English ones are a peculiarly archaic style with odd word orders and lots of thees and thous and harkens and so on. I saw nothing in the French of the libretto to justify it and I found it extremely irritating. It’s the one black mark in an otherwise very good DVD. Subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish.