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Jean Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Les Paladins (1760)
Libretto by Duplat de Monticourt after a fable by La Fontaine
Atis: Topi Lehtipou
Argie: Stephanie d’Oustrac
Orcan Laurent Naouri
Nerine: Sandrine Piau
Anselme: Rene Schirrer
Manto: Francois Piolino
Un paladin: Emiliano Gonzalez Toro
Les Arts Florissants Orchestra and Chorus/William Christie
rec. live, Théâtre du Chatelet, Paris, May 2004
Contents: Disc 1: Acts 1, 2 scenes 1-8; Disc 2: Act 2 scene 9 and Act 3 followed by a film by Reiner E. Moritz ‘Baroque that Rocks’
Picture Format: NTSC 16:9 anamorphic
Sound Format: DTS Surround Sound; LPCM Stereo
Region Code: All
Menu languages: EN
Subtitles: EN/FR/DE/ES/IT
BBC OPUS ARTE OA0938 [71.56 + 128.09]

Rameau called this, his last opera, an ‘opera lyriche’. However, as Reiner E. Moritz writes in his excellent booklet notes, it probably should be called or thought of as a ‘comédie-ballet’. Indeed I should estimate that about 50% of the entire performance is ballet. That is all to do good as it adds to an overall experience which is rich and strange and infectiously exciting.

The advertising for this DVD read something along the lines of "This passionate new production" Certainly the singing and orchestral playing is committed. "Stunningly choreographed": I shall point out that it is rather controversial. "Sets new standards in entertainment and ingenuity"; mostly that is quite true. "The sharp and spectacular multimedia staging does full justice to Rameau’s dazzling burlesque"; Rameau’s music could have survived quite happily without it). "Confirming Olivier Rouvière’s statement that 'Les Paladins’ is the last laugh of a witty 77-year old composer."; that I agree with although Rameau is always joyous and witty.

The Evening Standard even described the production as "ravishingly sexy". Perhaps the paper was referring to the sinuous and provocative movements that some the dancers are required to perform alongside their alter–ego characters to demonstrate to us what is actually going in their minds. Perhaps it is refers to the hot-pants - my wife tells me that I should describe them as short-shorts so as not to show my age - worn by the delicious Stephanie d’Oustrac playing Argie. Or perhaps the paper is referring to the nudity, especially in Act 2, which is witty and joyous and not at all erotic. I cannot be sure, but it is of course all of those plus a kind of sexual energy transmitted through the cast and extraordinarily through the music which is often so wild, excitable and daring. No wonder the opera was slated - if one can describe the reaction of early 18th century critics in that way - at the time and lay dormant for two hundred years. It must have upset some pompous sensibilities. I can’t help but feel that Rameau must have been a supporter of the philosophy of Rousseau but that’s another subject. One particular scene in which Anselme is seduced by Manto, a man dressed as a woman, upset Rameau’s especial enemy Charles Colle.

I have never seen a production of an opera quite like this. It is choreographed by Jose Montalvo (also the director) and Dominique Hervieu. The reputation of this team was already safe due to the performance of ‘Platée’ in 2003 when, again, they had secured the services of William Christie, the greatest Rameau interpreter of our, or any, time.

So what do you actually see? The production opens with dance over the overture. Behind the performers one sees a horizontally divided screen right across the stage. Onto this screen various computer-generated images are projected creating a sort of double-decker staging. These are often bizarre even Pythonesque. A huge rabbit - like something out of Alice - rather pointedly appears during Act 1’s very sexy love duet: "Vous m’aimez’. I still have not worked out why a tube-train makes an appearance unless it’s something to do with Atis’s rather mysterious pilgrimage. There is also an array of camels, elephants, lions and tigers which periodically march across the upper screen.

I found the myriad trampoliners behind the wonderful opening aria in Act III not only tiresome but also off-putting; so much so that I could hardly look at the screen. Never mind, it enabled me instead to concentrate on Rameau’s wonderful music. The dancing is vigorous and exciting and often very amusing but the speed of the choreography seems often to contradict the speed and even emotional meaning of the music. I found this mismatch puzzling.

The singing is quite superb. It would be invidious to single anyone out. With so much action and movement required from the young cast they could be forgiven the odd blemish of tuning or ensemble but there is practically none. They handle Rameau’s sometimes contorted lines incredibly well.

The winner, in spite of the director’s whims, is Rameau and for that fact William Christie should be singled out for praise. His choice of tempi can be rigorous for each player in the period instrument band. His love of the music shows throughout and his ending of the opera as the music fizzles out is unbelievably and simultaneously both risky and witty. The dances are energetic and yet detailed, dynamics are graded and ornamentation is consistent and graceful.

The second disc has Reiner Moritz’s documentary film, entitled ‘Baroque that rocks’. This lasts almost an hour and takes you through the convoluted plot with the help of the performers and director. We are also guided through some of the musical highlights with William Christie and we get to see the manuscript. I would advise you to do what I did. Do watch this part first so as to know what to expect. It will help you grasp the plot. Incidentally it is not always easy to read the sub-titles against the bright screen lighting. I do wish that Opus Arte would put disc track numbers against the arias and dances in the booklet. This would help everyone to find their way about.

Despite what has been said about the stage production I have never enjoyed a Rameau opera as much as this. This is a warm and brilliant tribute to a truly great composer by some exceptional artists. It has been a real joy studying it for review.

Gary Higginson

 

 

 



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