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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Les Boréades

Barbara Bonney (Alphise)
Paul Agnew (Abaris)
Laurent Naouri (Borée)
Toby Spence (Calisis)
Stéphane Degeuot (Borlée)
Nicolas Revenq (Adamas, Apollon)
Anna-Maria Panzarelly (Sémire)
Jael Azzaretti (Une Nymphe)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Rec: Palais Garnier, Paris; date not given
Sound format: Dolby stereo and 5.1 surround; Subtitle languages: GB, D, F, ES; Picture format: 16:9 anamorphic; Picture standard: PAL; Region code: 0
OPUS ARTE OA0899D [218 mins]


Rameau has been well-served recently, with a DVD of Platée, as performed by Marc Minkowski's Les Musiciens du Louvre and with a stellar cast. This DVD, featuring two of the same lead singers (Paul Agnew and Laurent Naouri), under the direction of William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, shows how popular Rameau has become in recent years, both for recordings and performances of his operas.

The good thing about operas on DVD is that you get images with the music, and you also get subtitles allowing you to follow the plot more easily. The bad thing, however, is that you get images with the music - if the staging is poor, or not to your taste, it's pretty hard to sit through three hours of opera just to hear the music. To quote the blurb for this disc on the manufacturer’s web site, "Director Robert Carsen and his creative team flood the stage with summer blossoms, drifts of autumn leaves, winter snows and thunderous spring storms. The cast of 140 are attired in elegant costumes inspired by late 1940s Dior." Ah, yet another baroque opera dressed up in modern attire....

One of the biggest problems is the costumes, which in the first act, are all post-modern slate grey (late 1940s Dior? Didn't Dior like color?), and the lighting which makes the performers blend in to the drop at the back of the stage. Of course, the lighting was designed for the performance, not for the filming, and the weakness here is obvious from the first act. Add to that the frozen performers - especially the choir, who stand like parking meters around the stage - and the dancers with their "modern" version of St. Vitus' dance, and you may easily be annoyed.

When the second act comes along, monochromism is again the rule, though this time the costumes of many of the characters are yellowish (or white with yellow lights to give them hue), though the leads haven't changed from their post-modern grey. This act is more attractive overall, with the stage strewn with coloured flowers; not very imaginative, after all, but when you don't have any sets to speak of you have to do something. But in case you thought it would last, the greys return, and take over the stage during the obligatory dance movement with a scantily clad, lithe female dancer being manipulated by one of the grey men. I guess there is a message somewhere, in these recurring female dancers in lingerie, but I don't get it. As always, the choreography is bouncing to a different beat, and highly detracts from the smooth, flowing melodies that Rameau wrote for his musical interludes.

Naturally, many people like this sort of "minimalist" staging; or do they really? I can't imagine sitting through three hours of this without closing my eyes. But when I look away from the television, the magic begins. Christie is one of today's foremost conductors of baroque music, and his ensemble is crisp and lively, with tempi and rhythms that make you want to tap your feet. (It's a shame the choreographer didn't pick up on that ...) The singers are all top-rate, though Anna-Maria Panzarella, as Sémire, doesn't have the voice for this type of music. Paul Agnew is excellent, Laurent Naouri is regal, and Barbara Bonney shines in her (brief) role as Alphise - it is a pure joy to listen to her sing this role.

One of the finest moments is in the third act (there is now a set; a large table surrounded by chairs) when Paul Agnew, as Abaris, comes storming on stage with his choir (they are all dressed in white), and sings, "Jouissons, Jouissons, de nos beaux ans", as if in a cry to get these boring grey people off the stage and to bring in the excitement and joy that is omnipresent in the music. This joy is to absent in this performance, that Agnew seems to cry out for the audience as well as his character.

It is a shame that such excellent music-making is marred by staging and costumes that are the antithesis of Rameau's spirit, and this disc ends up being more something to listen to than to watch. Barbara Bonney, in the "making of" included in this set, sums up the problem: "It's very sexy music", she says, and the lack of sexiness in the staging drowns the music in moroseness.

Kirk McElhearn

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