I’m not really sure that it’s a good idea to take Rameau too seriously, especially a work like Les Indes galantes but that’s what Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui does in his production for the 2016 Münchner Opernfestspiel. As written, the piece has five separate parts; an allegorical prelude and four scènes, each telling a love story in an “exotic” setting; Turkey, Peru, Persia, among les sauvages of North America. It’s a spectacle but it uses the exotic settings to poke fun at certain aspects of Western culture in Rameau’s usual irreverent way. There’s no linking narrative and the characters in each scène (the goddesses Amour and Bellona aside) only appear once.
The influence of the myth that Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was written for a girls’ school seems to have had a long lasting influence on performance practice resulting in presentations that are very short and uncomplicated. In reexamining the work for the Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie, Vincent Dumestre of Le Poème Harmonique and stage directors Cécile Roussat and Julien Lubek come to different conclusions and, accordingly, present the work quite differently. They argue that the work was written for the court of Charles II though quite possibly never performed there owing to the death of the king and the turmoil that followed. They further argue that existing score fragments show numerous places where dance movements should be inserted and that this indicates something akin to Lully’s tragédies lyriques, especially as Lully was much in vogue in London at the time.
There’s a pretty good “making of” extra with the 2013 Glyndebourne recording of Rameau’s rarely performed Hippolyte et Aricie. In it, director Jonathan Kent argues that there are essentially two ways of dealing with the French baroque; elegance or “throwing the kitchen sink at it”. To this one might add a weird pastiche of bare chests, stylized gesture and high camp but that’s another story. My best experiences with Rameau have definitely been of the kitchen sink variety. I’m thinking of productions like José Montalvo’s Les Paladins. Kent is a bit more restrained but still pretty inventive which I think is necessary as Hippolyte et Aricie is rather episodic and fragmented and could use some livening up.
Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea was the “shabby, little shocker” of the 17th century. It’s about lust, obsession, murder and revenge. So, it’s a bit surprising that all too often it comes off as elegant but deadly dull. That’s rather the case with Pierre Luigi Pizzi’s production filmed at the Teatro Real in 2010. Despite having Danielle di Niese, something of a specialist Roman sex kitten, in the title role it’s all rather bloodless. It starts off OK with the gods and goddesses of the prologue being wheeled about on platforms but after that he gets rather static. Sets and costumes are almost unrelieved grey/silver tones (including a rather fetching pair of silver lamé booty shorts for Damigella) although Nerone himself seems to be dressed as a giant black chicken in Act1 (know you of such a bird, Baldrick?). The only real breaks in the (literal) monotony are the bright red robe Ottone borrows from Drusilla for the attempted murder and the sparkly gold outfits that appear for Nerone and Poppea at the end. It’s also rather dark most of the time.
Deborah Warner’s entry point to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the, almost certainly apocryphal, story about it premiering in a girls’ boarding school. At various points in the action we get a chorus of schoolgirls in modernish uniforms commenting silently on the action. They are on stage during the overture, are seen in dance class during some of the dance music and queue up for the Sailor’s autograph. It’s quite touching and adds to the pathos of the basic, simple, tragic story. Warner also adds a prologue (the original is lost). In Warner’s version Fiona Shaw declaims, and acts out, poems by Ovid/Ted Hughes, TS Eliot and WB Yeats. These additions aside the piece is presented fairly straightforwardly in a sort of “stage 18th century” aesthetic. The witch scenes are quite well handled with Hilary Summers as a quite statuesque sorceress backed up by fairly diminutive (and, for witches, quite cute) Céline Ricci and Ana Quintans. Their first appearance is quite restrained but they go to town quite effectively in their second appearance.