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Friday, 25 January 2013

Barbara Hannigan and Quatour Diotima in Berg, Schoenberg and Alma Mahler

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Another concert in the Rest is Noise series, and we're still talking turn of the century music which is really my thing. The fascinating cultural, intellectual and artistic milieu of fin de siecle Vienna in particular is a rich subject for exploration and much has been written about its overripe, overwrought, indulgence, inspiration and eventual rot. Schoenberg's op.2 Songs, all of Alma Mahler's songs and Berg's seven early songs all were composed in this artistic crucible and reflect the sense of exploration and lack of assurance that characterises this period so strongly.

The early Schoenberg set feel like very traditional German lieder gone slightly askew with their tinkling piano figurations which occasionally open out unexpectedly into mystical evocations of rapt poignancy. Unfortunately Hannigan's very idiosyncratic singing did the music no favours - there was simply no legato to speak of - every single note was a lozenge shaped bulge, made even more uncomfortable by the occasional toothpaste like explosion of vibrato onto a sound that is 70% straight tones. Its a very light lyric voice and easily gets lost when quiet notes slip off the breath. One of Schoenberg's op.2 set I had just heard in Renée Fleming's recital at the Barbican last month and the comparison did Hannigan no favours. Neither did it Reinbert de Leeuw's pallid piano playing which rendered all of Schoenberg's complex harmony in drab watercolours, details hardly focussed in the haze.

Alma Mahler's songs have the atmosphere of parlour music, deliciously overlain by the schmerz of Wolf/Mahler songs to create touching little numbers that hint at an as yet incompletely realised compositional voice that may have developed into something really personal had she not been thwarted in this by her husband. Performance wise the same problems that beset the Schoenberg songs were present here too. Berg's Seven Early Songs are an achingly, luxuriantly, feverishly erotic set, the music of a young man trying to prove his compositional potency, and he succeeds admirably - its a set of miniature masterpieces that have understandably gained wider popularity than much of the music of this time. The musical lines are so strong here and colours so potent that it wrung more tone and line out of both performers, but this was still a constricted and frigid reading of a wonderfully indulgent and generous set of songs.

All this I found disappointing because Hannigan is so esteemed in contemporary music circles, and the clips I have heard of her in pieces by Boulez and other contemporary composers reveal a much fuller, more consistent sound, not to mention much more natural phrasing, at least with orchestra. Perhaps her technique changes dramatically for recitals, but it really came up short musically and artistically here. She barely smiled after each set during her bows so I wondered whether she was having an off day. I'm still hopeful about her appearance in the upcoming opera by George Benjamin Written on Skin at the ROH in a couple of months.

Finally we got Schoenberg's Second String Quartet which not so coincidentally features a soprano and is a key work in Schoenberg's transitioning between the lush late romanticism of the Gurrelieder say, and the atonal and eventual 12 tone phases that were to come. I have to say that I prefer its neighbours in Schoenberg's opus numbers list, but the last movement, the most "advanced", stands out as a wonderful inspiration. The Quatour Diotima have a very strange, brittle tone and ultra narrow vibrato, clearly deliberately cultivated as it's so consistent across all four players, but there's no bloom in the sound and little blend between players, with limited dynamic range, balance issues with the cello, and once again a severe lack of phrasing. As a result this was a rather ascetic reading of this already difficult piece, and only the last movement began to live a little more.

If Schoenberg and Berg are to ever gain greater currency they're going to need more passionate and beautiful advocacy than was proffered in this evening's music making. You can't win them all.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

L'Orfeo at Silent Opera

Trinity Bouy Wharf

I'm a Monteverdi fan. It's such compelling theatre and beautiful music that I wonder that he got so much right in an art form that basically didn't exist yet. As always, the surprising thing about genius is that it's surprising! L'Orfeo is his first attempt, and is opera's first masterpiece.

Director Daisy Evans and designer Katherine Heath have given the opera a fantasy treatment by setting it in a sort of sci fi future/past/alternate reality. Society in the fields of Thrace has descended into some sort of ultra decadent orgiastic paradise, where people move like panthers and have sex a lot, wearing either zany make up or slightly fetishistic flashing harnesses. Dionysus/Bacchus is in vogue. But ardent Orfeo and his beautiful and coquettish bride Euridice seem more adjusted in their radiant happiness, or at least more open to each other than the narcissism and hedonism that is the norm for the rest of society. But their happiness doesn't last, and Euridice is struck suddenly dead by lighting. Thus starts Orfeo's quest to save her. 

There are lots of nice touches, and some striking visual elements - the room of glass and candles that the mystic Caronte has made for himself, and the inverted church for Plutone, king of Hades. Nice too is the idea that the underworld characters speak Italian, contrasting with the the English language "overworld" translation that frames the central underworld episode. Other choices are less clear such as why Euridice is played by an actress (with offstage singing), or how Orfeo manages to get past the forbidding Caronte and slip into Hades.

After the abortive rescue attempt, it finishes in pure noise as voices shout and argue over whether to save him or damn him, and in an ending akin to the original libretto he is carried off by the demented denizens of the fields of Thrace we met previously (a less crapulent, more hipsterish version of the amusingly sinister female drunks "the Bacchantes" as in the original) where presumably he'll be torn to shreds by violence and lovemaking. No Deus ex Machina in sight!

The cast are uniformly very good, all young professionals of a high standard. The particular standout is William Berger's Orfeo with his powerful and easy tenor that he is able to smoothly fine down to a thread for more intimate moments. Of the rest, Emilie Renard was particularly engaged and communicative as the overwrought Messaggiera. The score for L'Orfeo is so open to interpretation that every production sounds radically different from every other one, so it's often difficult to compare performances. The instruments that Monteverdi lists at the beginning of the score (though doesn't mark directly onto the lines of music) offer occasion for such extreme colour and contrast, not to mention beauty, that I always want them to be as dramatically exploited as possible, but this was a gentler, more restrained sound picture than I am used to, partly live and partly pre recorded (specially) as it was. As is hinted at above, the translated libretto takes several liberties with the original text, but it flows well and sounds natural when sung.

Why is it called Silent Opera I hear you scream. Calm down. The idea is akin to a silent disco where sound is relayed to you via cordless headphones and there is no ambient noise in the room. Here, the main body of the orchestra is present only in your headphones. Singers sing live with mics and so they are also beamed into your ears, but also, the five (!) continuo players also play live and are added into the recorded mix. I actually removed my headphones for quite a lot of it, because the natural sound of the voices and instruments blending was much more pleasing than the direct headphone noise. I didn't really understand why we were using them at all - yes, it means you can have pre recorded orchestral tracks which makes opera much cheaper and is less space prohibitive, but why not just get some good speakers mounted on the ceiling to do the same job as the headphones? I didn't feel the technology was really being utilised for what it immediately suggests, which is an emancipation from being in one indoors location, and also from the architectural exigencies of satisfying acoustics. The quay has such stunning views that it seemed a shame not to have that sense of space and the infinite sky above us.

I realise it's early days (this is only Silent Opera's third production) and that they're still working out how best to use their idea, but I was just surprised that it was put to such limited and spurious use. The other problem is that it's often hard to see what's going on as most things happen at ground level and within touching distance of the audience, which are always several people deep. It's also in the round, so you only get to see the singers's faces for half of any scene, and sometimes not even that - I noticed lots of people's concentration flagging as we were sometimes physically denied the ability to stay engaged with the action. The exciting din of the final scene was strangely anticlimactic for about two thirds of the audience as it all occurred on the floor and most people couldn't see what was going on. Sort of basic stuff to go wrong, and even the director chose to stand on the staging to see what was happening.

Another small matter for grumbling. I'm not a huge fan of direct audience interaction, because apart from it being uninvited and invasive, by breaking the fourth wall it draws attention to the absurdity of the action and of operatic conventions; it also interrupts our suspended disbelief as we struggle with the annoyance of it and on a subconscious level in how we try to make sense of what it might mean that we are interacting with these strange characters. If we're meant to be part of the drama and feel actively involved, then why are we so inert and lacking in dramatic importance in the story? Are we encouraged to interfere with the action? If so then maybe we could have been told at the beginning. I can imagine some operas where it could work well (e.g. Otello Act 3, or Act 2 of La Boheme, where we could be complicit in the action) but here it seemed out of place, or at least requiring of a more creative solution. I understand that we needed to be ushered through to the different sections, but being compelled by our own brains to move because it was obvious that action was going on elsewhere and we were so keen to find out what was going to happen would have been more interesting and engaging than being pushed. It only takes a few to lead a herd!

Still, technological gripes aside, it's a fun evening of opera, with lovely moments and overall doesn't bore, though I wished it had been more adventurous and boundary pushing, like it claims to be in the advertising. Lots of the audience were young which is a good sign, and what's great is that they're getting the full operatic experience with full orchestra. I am certainly keen to see Silent Opera's next effort.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Strauss with Karita Mattila, Thomas Hampson, the LPO and Jurowski. (The Rest is Noise inaugural concert)

Royal Festival Hall

This was the inaugural concert in the LPO's two year concert series based on Alex Ross' popular book on 20th century music The Rest is Noise. And like the book it starts with Strauss, who according to Ross is the key composer that bridges the 19th century and 20th century, a culmination of the old century and a preparation for what came next. The concert featured Jurowski talking about Strauss in between pieces, which he did intelligently, but was largely unnecessarily I thought, and I don't know if this is going to be standard practise for every concert in this series.

First was Also Sprach Zarathustra which exciting and lovely though it is seems more silly to me as a response to Nietzsche's text every time I hear it. Yes it's not meant to be a piece of "musical philosophising" but it is meant to be a tribute to Nietzsche, and the "Ascent of Man" described by Strauss' "plot". But could anything be more inappropriate to the mood of Nietzsche's text than the spirit of the Waltz which explicitly or implicitly permeates almost every bar of the score?

I'll get to the review soon, but first an aside. I know this is probably sacrilege amongst Straussians (amongst whose number I certainly count myself) but I actually think many of the tone poems are overorchestrated, and that all the gilt and glitz usually sounds better on the "flattened" sound of a CD than it does in the concert hall. Don Quixote is the first one which is perfectly achieved (I think it's probably his best non vocal work), but I'd say that the preceding ones are where Strauss is really learning and honing his craft, and that the richest rewards of this exploration are reaped in the operas of the following two decades. I also happen to think that he continued to refine further his orchestration even through the fallow years of his musical creativity (mid 1920s to late '30s after which the Indian summer begins) - the perfect muted beauty of Capriccio didn't appear out of nowhere, and nor is it simply a return to what he was doing before.

Anyway, this was a rather light, fleet footed reading of the score I thought, though sumptuously played by the LPO with absolutely astonishing ensemble in the strings in the ridiculously challenging passagework. I was sitting right in the front row, so balance was strange though only in this piece on the program so I don't know if this was a quirk of circumstance. The strings often overpowered woodwind, even if the playing was of such high standard that it was hard to complain too much. Lead violinist Peter Schoeman impressed with diamond edged assurance and tremendously solid tone. It never quite took off fully though, and I wanted more gut busting explosiveness than was delivered.

Next came a rarity. Strauss' op.33 constitutes a major set of four large scale orchestral songs, all of which were conceived in their orchestral guises, an unusual trait for this genre with Strauss. None of this is top drawer Strauss, though all four are worthy of more than the occasional listen and contain many moments of real inspiration. Verfuhrung (Seduction) is perhaps predictably the strongest, and has a particularly magical second half full of classic Straussian harmonic sideslips. Gesang der Apollopriesterin is a paler affair, deliberately so, but doesn't play to Strauss' strengths. Karita Mattila took a long while to warm up during the former and it's clear that singing is quite an effortful process for her now, the voice seeming quite unwieldy - the mouth, jaw and throat are constantly making muscular adjustments to control the sound which though still large and impressively full is also squeezed and hints at wobble when singing below a forte. In fact, it seems that quiet singing is no longer possible "on the breath" for her, and the result is a very hoarse, unstable sound in tender passages. Her German diction is poor, possibly as a result of all the facial manipulations that are required to keep the voice in control, though I'm not familiar with much of her previous German singing I have to say, so I don't know if it has deteriorated. Tuning is still more or less good, though there is significant crooning to get to some notes. Gesang der Apollopriesterin fared significantly better with its less complex lines, but thank god for the astounding Salome that finished the concert or I would have been quite disappointed with a singer that I have admired for some time.

Hampson offered the opposite extreme. Even at 57 his superb technique means he's still exceptionally in control, offering a smooth legato line and effortless high notes without any obvious signs of tiring. On the other hand the timbre is not quite as silky and warm as it has been, and he doesn't seem to have the vast range of vocal colours at his disposal any more that he used to possess. He also simply failed to sing any note below the middle of the bass cleff above a croaking piano, sort of an issue in these songs which go so low and so high, especially when the highs were so brilliant and loud. It's very detailed, considered singing, and he has perfect German with excellent diction, but the lack of emotional range and truly personal response to the text meant that it felt merely polished and composed, rather than communicative and intimate. I do tend to prefer ultra controlled singers who are detailed interpreters and superlative technicians (Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf, Fleming) who some might find fussy, to more wild, instinctive, rougher singers (Rysanek, Netrebko), but while decent Hampson I thought here epitomised the dangers and pitfalls of the former approach.

His two songs Hymnus and Pilgers Morgenlied are both very exciting and beautiful pieces, the former exalted and resonant, and the stormy, frothing momentum of the latter is especially rarely heard because of its extreme tessitura. But the major rarity was the Notturno op.44 no.1 which opened the second half. Again the extreme vocal demands of this opus has severely curtailed the number of performances, and it's another orchestral song composed expressly for the medium on the grandest scale, this time a full quarter hour. And it's just so strange: a polytonal, moonlit landscape of utmost psychological intensity and depressive angst, with a broken hearted, eerie violin solo drifting listlessly above the nightmarish terrain. It's one of Strauss' finest inspirations and offers a view of a road not travelled - his hand at expressionism, a far cry from his normal gemütlichkeit, virtuosity and shock tactics. And it comes from 1899*! This performance was decent I thought, better than the previous offerings, though again I felt that Hampson was not brave enough in getting to the heart of this tortured, bleakly beautiful piece.

After this we were back on familiar ground with the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome. I have to say I adore this unpretentious orchestral showpiece, which shocks and thrills just as it should without any illusions to profundity or sublimity. I know that people complain that it's the weakest part of the opera, but it's difficult to know what they expect from this most tacky section of the drama - that Strauss does so much with such vulgar base material can only be described as alchemical and again almost without precedent in his oeuvre - is anything this cleanly or efficiently scored in his output before or after, so full of contrast and thrills whilst remaining completely lucid and clear at every moment? Yes it's cheap, but it's also brilliant. This performance was wonderfully judged by Jurowski I thought, in tempo, gesture and timbre, the players clearly relishing this bonbon and playing as a single machine.

Then came the final scene of the same opera. Jurowski explained that he had chosen to use an orchestration that Strauss had indicated when he revised it in around 1930 for performances by more lyric voices such as the Mozart singer Maria Rajdl (who presumably still had significant vocal heft, as she premiered the eponymous role in Die Aegyptische Helena) so that the role no longer required an Isolde like Marie Wittich for whom it was written. I have to say that I didn't much miss the removed instrumentation and in fact this was by some distance the finest sound the orchestra made all evening - like in the previous piece, but now even more so the orchestra glowered and glowed as if a single entity. Part of it is that the last half hour of Salome is of course in every parameter simply one of the 4 or 5 most inspired expanses of music that Strauss ever composed, but Jurowski lead with deft touch and a superb feel for not just colour but forward direction too. I eagerly await his Ariadne this summer at Glyndebourne.

copyright Richard Avedon
Vocally this was the best portion of the evening too. Mattila strode through with burning willpower and a tangible need to communicate and seemed to be experiencing a moment of personal inspiration which rose frequently to truly incandescent focus. She was hurling her voice around which was exciting but risky, and the same hoarseness in quiet singing and more than occasional instability that marred the songs crept in here too. But the total musical and physical embodiment of character in her performance was of a terrifying intensity, to the point where you sometimes almost forgot she was singing. As a result she transcended her technical limitations utterly, and actually when singing her loudest in the middle voice, a seam of silver-golden tone from her prime was tapped again. I wouldn't want to hear it like this every time necessarily, but this was a performance of blazing power, and it was a wonder to watch Mattila as if possessed give so much of herself, presenting the most complete performance she could muster in that moment. Thrilling and awe inspiring.

Tony Pappano and Tony Hall were in the audience, joining the vast majority in giving Mattila a standing ovation.

*Strauss' orchestral songs for low male voice are a real passion of mine as they're of such consistently inspired quality, and virtually never performed - there are another three to add to the list of those performed here. Five of the six are recorded by the superb Andreas Schmidt with equally superb accompaniment here, and I urge the interested or sceptical to try this disc - one of my very favourites.

Friday, 18 January 2013

The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House


A thrilling evening!

I didn't catch The Minotaur during its premiere in 2008, so was delighted to be able to see it in this, its first revival. And it's fantastic. This opera really shows why Birtwistle is so esteemed: this is incredibly exciting music with a bewilderingly imaginative ear for sonority and texture, and though it doesn't develop traditionally and is not exactly generous to the ear, the almost cinematic way it creates space, mood and drama keeps it engaging and tense. The violence and barbarism of the music evokes a very particular atmosphere that seems completely fitting with the subject matter and (excellent) libretto - fractured, shimmering and brittle, with frequent outbursts of roaring orchestral power. We have to wait until the second act to get anything that substantially contrasts - often Birtwistle will contrast loud music with silence and emptiness rather than softness. There's no doubt that certain portions are ugly and even crude and more contrast would give it a more conventional tension and shape. All this makes for a sometimes uncomfortable listening experience and I fully understand if it becomes too much for people, even although on its own terms, the sheer resourcefulness of Birtwistle's ability to create new noises from the orchestra borders on the miraculous. But it's also compelling theatre, and it comes 75% from the music which is what opera should be like.

In between all this hard, tortured psychology is an undeniable sickly, throbbing sexuality, a quality that is extremely rare in atonal music. Lulu manages this with its opulent lushness (learned from Wagner and Strauss, improbably transmuted by 12 tone procedures), but in Birtwistle's score the presence of this element is surprising because of his eschewal of the languid, the indulgent, the ingratiating. It's not just the sleazy sax that so often accompanies Ariadne - there's a queasy, genuinely erotic tone in the score that completely convinces in the demented context. In say Strauss' ostensibly comparable Salome, the extreme sexual situation comes off as pure porn: however vital and inspired the notes are, it's calculated decadence, designed to titillate, faked for the camera*. In Birtwistle the combination of violence and sex creates a nausea that is real and disturbing.

All this is so difficult to get right in the theatre, especially in opera. To tackle sexual themes without being too prim, or the more common danger in recent years, without being too obvious, is rare: the result of either of these approaches is either risible or alienating. But director Stephen Langridge gets it just right. He realises the power of Birtwistles music and doesn't try to do too much - he creates a very simple circular set mainly through lighting (by Paul Pyant), leaving most of the heavy lifting to our imaginations and the almost choreographic score. That is not to say that he isn't pulling his weight, but he prefers simplicity and congruence to sensory overload and symbolism and it works superbly with the music. I also very much admired the finely tuned level of abstraction in all aspects - set, costumes (both by Alison Chitty), and action - even the way the Minotaur kills people is judged just right - making it realistic would just get in the way - there is gore, but there's also metaphor, and still the full horror of the events is adequately construed. Also John Tomlinson's Minotaur costume - we see the man and the beast simultaneously at all times, its adaptable enough for Tomlinson to be both scary and sympathetic, it suggests enough of the beastliness and leaves enough to the imagination. And as mentioned the theme of twisted sexuality is brilliantly handled - Ariadne is sexy and vampish in a believable way without resorting to action designed to shock which might take you out of the drama. The video of the Aegean sea rippling in slow motion that punctuates the opera becomes strangely and compellingly erotic. I could continue, but suffice to say that everything feels just right.

There's wonderful performances from the entire cast: John Tomlinson is superb as the Minotaur, inhabiting the part as expected whilst giving the character a pathos and sadness that marks out all his darkest creations. If anything he is slightly under utilised - he is such a great performer that the music could have entrusted him with more room for interpretation and subtlety, but the current trend in composition is to leave as little to chance as possible, and this is obviously the composer's prerogative, so it is what it is.

Christine Rice is simply outstanding as Ariadne in what is by far the longest role in the opera - really demanding music, though eminently lyrical and singable as far as dissonant contemporary music goes. The voice is luscious, large and beautifully controlled. The top is shiny and particularly lovely and is very well integrated with the powerful middle voice. Birtwistle requires frequent excursions into pure chest register and these were handled with great command and convincing power though perhaps not ideally blended with the middle voice. Unsurprisingly there were slight signs of fatigue by her final scene, but Rice possesses a wonderful, wonderful instrument, deserving of the very highest praise. For those who haven't heard her, her voice is the same sort of build and type as Eva-Maria Westbroek's but in the mezzo register and with a more beautiful basic timbre. Her acting was similarly exemplary.

Johan Reuter impressed greatly as Theseus with his large burnished sound and great control. He has a lot of loud singing to do so it's not a part requiring the greatest subtlety, but it was simply a pleasure to hear such assurance and beautiful tone in this music. Elisabeth Meister clearly took great delight in playing Ker, the leader of the hideous, scabrous harpies that devour the hearts of the Innocents, and she sounded truly spectacular in the showy, ecstatically leaping tessitura of her part. This is another exciting voice, whose large size and electric energy make her one to watch. The rest of the cast were also very good - countertenor Andrew Watts' febrile Snake Priestess was brilliantly conceived, and all the minor "Innocent" roles were very well sung indeed for such small parts. In contemporary music which is not yet well known it is often difficult to give an appraisal of the contribution made by the conductor and orchestra, but the orchestra were sounding very good indeed and were clearly committed to what must be a very challenging play, and Ryan Wigglesworth lead with energy and clarity.

When have I ever been this happy with a performance?! It's not the most delightful night at the opera, or the most emotionally compelling, but it is stirring, affecting and vital, and superbly executed by all: one of the very rare occasions when all aspects of this impossible art form conspire to be greater than the sum of their parts. If you are in any way inclined towards modern music I urge you to go.

Afterwards there was a touching tribute to John Tomlinson, celebrating 35 years of him performing at the ROH. He is one of the greatest interpretive artists of our times and it will be a great shame when he decides to give up the stage.

*NB: I LOVE Strauss.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Les Indes galantes 2003 Opéra National de Paris DVD: A Question of Camp

Opus Arte

Hébé: Danielle de Niese
Bellone: Joao Fernandes
L'Amoure: Valérie Gabail

Osman: Nicolas Cavallier
Emilie: Anna Maria Panzarella
Valere: Paul Agnew

Huascar: Nathan Berg
Phani: Jael Azzaretti
Don Carlos: Francois Piolini

Tacmas: Richard Croft
Ali: Nathan Berg
Zaire: Gaele le Roi
Fatime: Malin Hartelius

Adario: Nicolas Rivenq
Damon: Christoph Strehl
Don Alvar: Christophe Fel
Zima: Patricia Petibon

Conductor: William Christie
Les Arts Florissants

Director: Andrei Serban
Set and costume designer: Marina Draghici
Choreographer: Blanca Li

After Hippolyte et Aricie, Rameau's second foray into opera Les Indes galantes might come as a shock - the intimacy, incredible drama and newness of the previous opera is eschewed in favour of stock situations and divertissement. But Les Indes galantes is an opéra-ballet rather than a Tragédie en musique, and therefore is a much lighter, frothier affair, with the focus more firmly on ballet than on singing.  This shift of focus and also the shift of tone prevents it from being one of my more favourite Rameau operas though there's plenty to enjoy for those who like this music. (Though I love numbers here and there of all Rameau's operas, my favourites as total entities are largely the five Tragédies en musique.)

It is difficult to be an opera lover and not have at least some taste for the Camp aesthetic. I for my part identify with Susan Sontag's position in her extraordinarily brilliant essay Notes on Camp. As she did, I admit "a sharp conflict in my own sensibility. I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it." There are situations where I like it, and some where I don't; as mentioned in the essay, as a general rule, naïve Camp is usually more satisfying than "camping" aka deliberate Camp. (As an aside, I cannot recommend the essay enough, one of my favourite essays ever. I wish I had written it.)

this sort of thing

Everyone will have their own internal standards and sensibilities on this issue, even if they have not yet been fully considered and verbalised, so mileage will vary on how much each viewer will enjoy this production. For me, Andrei Serban's production crosses the line into camping so far that I find it difficult to enjoy. It's sort of fun moment by moment, but there's a joyless superficiality and denial of the Spirit in pointing out obvious absurdities and avoiding true emotion if Camp can be substituted, which is what this production tends heavily towards. It's also difficult to sustain an audience's interest over a period of music this long if their emotions are not engaged. As a result, for me at least, the whole thing feels prolix and uninvolving. Baroque opera suffers hugely from these sort of productions because broadly, what they offer as drama usually is the endless emotional contortions that surround romantic love and its denial. Rameau can come so close to Camp as it is - the powdered ultra decadence of the Ancien Régime is often invoked in less musically and lyrically inspired passages, where means seem to so far outstrip the ends that it becomes difficult to take it seriously. Camp is just around the corner. For me, the solution to make it viable as a piece of stagecraft is not to turn it into a joke, basically because the joke isn't funny enough. I don't mind directors being what some might call "disrespectful" to a piece if ultimately it deepens our appreciation of the artwork, but an ultra decadent panto without the smut or jokes pretty quickly becomes a bit of an inflated bore rather than a guilty delight.

Act IV
Perversely, part of the problem may be that this production doesn't go far enough. If you're going to do it, make a real meal of it! The bright primary colours, twee costumes and set pieces, and panto acting do make it ultra stylised, artificial and sort of fabulous, but it doesn't evince the overstuffed cavern of delights that it's aiming for because the ideas are a bit literal and could be more flamboyant, subversive and decadent. This approach would be truer to Rameau in a way, because he was the ne plus ultra of these things in his time - but we need to feel this now, with our modern sensibilities, ideas and standards, if it's going to work on that level.

Act IV: Christoph Strehl as Damon and
Patricia Petibon as Zima
The Prologue and Act I Le Turc généreux are the worst offenders for camping design wise, and the the singers completely fail to engage with their characters (either because of the alienating production, or because they've been explicitly told to camp it up). Act II, Les Incas du Perou is stronger visually, and takes itself more seriously, at least for the centrepiece, a stirring mass invocation to the gods followed by a Rameau staple, a lightning and thunder/natural disaster scene. It helps also that the music is more interesting and varied in this act. The resolution though is let down again by poor attention to detail in the acting, and the singers revert to rather uninvolved, static declamation. Act III Les Fleurs we are back to panto, and in Act IV Les Sauvages we get some mildly offensive, but mostly just very bad choreography, which throughout has been of very variable quality.

Paul Agnew in Act I
The cast is entirely serviceable - all sing with immaculate intonation and with meticulous attention to proper Ramistian style. But Christie seems to favour very very light voices in this repertoire, and I wish he would work with slightly bigger voices with more colouristic options. In studio recordings they can sound beautiful, but already on DVD you can hear that they are struggling to fill the huge modern day opera houses that are staging these works. Not one singer has a strong low register here, particularly an issue for the women as so much of Rameau's writing sits relatively low. The singers of that era must have had approximately the same distribution of vocal weights as today, and many parts are not very florid, so I somehow doubt that Rameau would only have utilised soubrettes and light tenors and spiel-baritones.

Richard Croft stands out as the disguised prince Tacmas in Act III, with some gorgeous lyrical singing in the quartet, and a quite lovely falsetto before he goes into his joke female voice. Patricia Petibon also produces some very nice sounds as Zima in Act IV, though is completely over the top acting wise. A very young Danielle de Niese already shows huge promise at 24 as Hébé in the Prologue, easily singing as well as her respected co-stars - you realise that it's not just her stage presence that is dazzling, but that the voice has real star quality, particularly the upper register which already is fuller and more exciting than any of the other female principles. The more I hear of her live, the more impressed I am - OK, she's not one of the Great Voices, but it's still a very decent voice, she is a charming actress, can sing with sensitivity to the text, is clearly engaged on stage, and as a whole package is way, way above what we normally get in soubrette roles at the moment on the big stages.

William Christie as ever is exemplary in this repertoire, and Les Arts Florissants play with their usual panache.

Doesn't it look like it should be great from these costumes? But by the end my expression mirrored Danielle's here. (This is a screen shot from the prologue)