Rameau - Les Indes Galantes

Opéra National de Paris - Palais Garnier - September 17 2003

Conductor: William Christie. Production: Andrei Serban. Les Arts Florissants.

I realized, as this revival approached, rather to my surprise, that I have probably only ever heard Les Indes Galantes performed by Christie and Les Arts Florissants, whether on CD or in the theatre, in Alfredo Arias' "punk" production and in this one in the Paris opera repertoire.

Rameau's "Opéra-Ballet" in a prologue and four acts has no continuous storyline, it's simply a series of vignettes. As such, it is probably konzept-proof. Serban's approach is faux-naïf, a story-book production for adult children, close in spirit to British pantomime (though this would be pretty chic as pantomimes go), complete with pantomime dame (Bellone is played as a petulant baroque drag-queen), in which Turks have giant turbans, sailors wear broad white trousers and striped jerseys, pirates have huge styrofoam muscles, flowers dance in giant flower-pots, les sauvages stomp and smoke peace pipes... It's colourful, lively, the costumes are great, it has great charm and verges on the Kitsch. It may, at this third or fourth outing, no longer be quite "box-fresh;" but maybe I've seen it once too often.

Perhaps I need a change from Christie's light- and fleet-footed, feathery approach. Perhaps I'd like a little more of Minkowski's thrust and swagger. Les Arts Florissants were on better form than in last season's Les Boréades, where they were surprisingly ragged. But I wonder if, now the group is maturing, routine is setting in. When Christie and his band scored baroque opera's first "smash hit" in modern Paris with Lully's Atys, and took it on to Brooklyn to represent French culture in New York in bicentenary year, they were on a roll. Some of the shine has possibly rubbed off, some of the enthusiasm gone... Nevertheless, Les Indes Galantes is now, to Les Arts Florissants what Brahms' 1st must be to the Berlin Philharmonic, so you naturally expect and get a (nearly) note-perfect performance.

The problem is, Christie is quite happy to put on the stage of the Opéra National singers who sound like the best in the music class at the local high school. You know, the ones who, at the school concert, are invited to bring their guitars and, with light, sweet and slightly unstable voices, sing Where have all the flowers gone? Such beautiful music and no-one to sing it; you long for a "real" voice while straining (from the best seats in the house) to hear the reedy, bleating sounds emerging from the sumptuous costumes on stage. This cast demonstrated, by omission, just how hard French baroque declamation is. What has been the point of bringing baroque orchestras up to virtuoso standards and baroque operas into sumptuous, highly professional productions in major theatres, only to invite amateur-sounding singers to sing in them - what an opera critic of my acquaintance calls "voiceless wonders"? They're a plague on performances of Händel and Rameau.

Anna Maria Panzanella (Emilie) was a little older than most and might just make it into Rossini in a small theatre. She at least has some technique. Paul Agnew, something of a baroque star, has a certain ingénu charm and vocal style but not much substance. Nathan Berg, who seems to be making a career for himself, again had some style, even some substance, but could he stretch even as far as Händel? I wonder.So we had to wait for the end to hear, at least/at last, some "proper" singing: the elegant Nicolas Rivenq still slim and sexy in his usual role, Adario, and Patricia Petitbon showing off her high notes as Zima. But what has opera come to if the diva of the evening is Patricia Petitbon?

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