Notes and Editorial Reviews
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.
This mythical tale of a young queen, Alphise, determined to abdicate
rather than contemplate an enforced marriage to a descendant of Boreas, is nothing less than highly-charged.
"The music is top-drawer Rameau, with exquisite airs, vigorous choruses and, as you would expect, lots of ballet. The writing for orchestra is outstanding..." -- Gramophone
Sung in French
Region Code All Regions
Picture format 16:9 Anamorphic
Running time 218 mins (approx)
Sound format Dolby Stereo and 5.1 surround
Menu language English
Subtitle Languages: English, German, French, Spanish
'The Triumph of Love' - 60 minute documentary on the background of the production, including Interviews with Robert Carsen, William Christie, Barbara Bonney, Paul Agnew and Laurent Naouri and other members of the cast.
R E V I E W S:
The question these days isn’t whether Baroque opera is going to be performed in modern dress on a barren stage, but will it work? In this particular case, I think it does. While I have major concerns about the choreography, this filmed, live staging of Les boréades achieves its goals. Fortunately, they include the musical and dramatic goals of Rameau, though they add their own to the mix.
The major change lies in the role of the chorus. Instead of having a number of individual groups—the Seasons, the Muses, Zephyrs, Pleasures and Graces, citizens of Bactria—this production focuses entirely on two. The larger of these comprise spirits of the Air element, in service to Calisis and Borilée, descendents of the god of the north wind. They’re dressed entirely in well-fitted, designer black suits, and possess slicked back hair, repressive attitudes, and a severe need to control everything in sight. The first appearance of this chorus on stage is splendidly symbolic: they form a line, moving across a field of brilliantly colored wildflowers, picking them out of the “ground” and laying them down. This gives both a sense of their emotional nature as stifling control freaks, and their elemental nature as creatures of the wind. Calisis and Borilée later gather some of the discarded wildflowers their followers hewed down into bouquets which they present to Alphise; another fine symbolic gesture.
In the second act, we see this same chorus employing long-handled brooms to repeatedly brush aside celebrating Bactrians. The latter dress in loose-fitting white outfits, evidently without a dress code: trousers, shorts, underwear, and negligeés are seen. Their actions lead us to believe they’re extremely laid-back carousers who, when not employed as a chorus in a new Rameau production, might well attend Jimmy Buffet concerts. An inherent opposition between these two forces is quickly established.
Make no mistake; it brings about a radical reconsideration of the stage action. What was formerly a drama about fate, virtue, tradition, and mature action in the principle characters, has now acquired an entirely new theatrical dimension based on the mindsets and activities of two competing choruses. Many aspects of the opera are affected, but one example will do: an unnamed nymph, who formerly sang her air “C’est la liberté” in conventional productions of Les boréades as an implied patriotic tribute to Louis XIV’s France, functions here as part of the Bactrians. Her piece is treated as a bitter protest against the oppressing air spirits, who are brushing her to the edges of the stage. If you can accept this, well and good; I found that it neither got in the way of the libretto, nor unduly hammered itself home.
Properties are used sparingly in a minimalist production that follows the trend towards stark, geometrical shapes. While the costumes are monochromatic, the introduction of wildly colorful autumn leaves and summer flowers provides a welcome sense of visual relief—and of course, they’re all functional. Changes of weather are cleverly handled by having the chorus of air spirits march across the stage, spinning upside-down umbrellas which disperse autumn leaves, imitation snow, etc, while more of the same subsequently drops from the “sky.”
Choreography looms large in any Rameau production, given the frequency and length of dances, and unfortunately, it’s more annoying than anything else, here. While classical ballet positions are often used, the dancers engage obsessively in linear, hyperactive arm-and-hand gestures. For a couple of acts, I assumed these were symbolic, though endless. “Ah ha, choreographer Édouard Lock is creating a dance form specifically for the black suit-clad, anal-retentive air spirits,” I thought. Then, in act III, the good guys in white, the Bactrian countrymen and women, finally got a chance at an extended dance, and they used the same bizarre, frenetic gestures at caffeine-based speeds. Far from being an ingenious stylistic device to differentiate between cultures, it’s apparently no more than ego imposing its own stamp, however inappropriately, on the opera.
Many of the singers will be familiar to those who have previously encountered Les Arts Florissants before. Nicolas Rivenq, who plays both Adamas and Apollo, has intonational troubles at the higher end of his bass range, and Anna-Maria Panzarella (Sémire) simply can’t move her voice quickly, but the rest of the cast is outstanding. Having many rapturously received live operatic performances on disc from the 1960s and 1970s when only a single cast member could manage coloratura, I have to wonder what the same audiences would make of something like this, where nearly every character tosses off vocal fireworks with nonchalant ease. In particular, Barbara Bonney and Paul Agnew excel both in their agility and dramatic comprehension of their respective roles. William Christie leads an energetic performance that never lacks for dramatic contrasts.
The film direction is good: mostly medium and long shots with an occasional close-up for effect, all chosen for its importance rather than simply to provide variety. The recording is excellent, too, with well-defined images and no instances of color changes or smearing. Les Boréades’s soundtrack options include stereo and Dolby Digital Surround. Subtitles are provided in English, German, Spanish, and French (oddly enough, since diction isn’t a problem). Recorded live in April 2003 at Paris’s Palais Garnier. The audience is both respectful and quite obviously healthy. As an extra feature, the second disc includes an hour of interviews with several of the principal singers and stage director Robert Carsen about different moments in the production.
I honestly admit I would have preferred a traditional staging of the opera. In part, it’s because Les Boréades is so rarely seen that the conventional interpretation—with appropriate period costuming, multiple sets on tracks, and Baroque artwork—would provide an interpretative norm against which other efforts could be measured. As it is, we have a radical staging coupled to a musical production that’s the last word in scholarly authenticity. These musings aside, I’ll take my Rameau where I can find him, at least, when he’s performed as well as this.
-- Barry Brenesal, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Les Boréades by Jean-Philippe Rameau
Toby Spence (Tenor),
Barbara Bonney (Soprano),
Paul Agnew (Tenor),
Stèphane Degout (Baritone),
Laurent Naouri (Baritone)
Les Arts Florissants,
Paris National Opera Orchestra
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