Ligeti Essais and Rameau’s Pigmalion

Paris-Châtelet, June 12 2005

For the Rameau: Conductor: Hervé Niquet. Production, choreography and video: Karole Armitage. Pigmalion: Cyril Auvity. Céphise: Valérie Gabail. La Statue: Cassandre Berthon. L’Amour: Magali Léger. Orchestra and Chorus of the Concert Spirituel. Ballet de Lorraine.

You wouldn’t normally find me writing about ballet at all. I wouldn’t want people to think I’m gay. But Pigmalion, termed an “acte de ballet,’ is a typical Rameau blend of dance and song, and Rameau is, to me, the greatest of all French composers… And Cyril Auvity is a very cute little teno… oops. Ahem, ahem.

In an interview published in anticipation of this performance, Hervé Niquet said that to him, Pigmalion was the greatest of all Rameau’s stage works, concentrating all the facets of the composer’s genius into just 50 minutes. He said that it required an unusually lavish orchestre à la française. He also said he’d be using singing dancers, as Rameau did in his day, for the female roles.

What he didn’t say was that the show would be miked.

This was very disconcerting. I may have been present at subtly amplified operas before without knowing it. But here, the amplification was so plain that it was impossible to place the voices on stage. There was a wall of sound, and I suspected that the orchestra was also being picked up to some extent by the singers’ mikes, and relayed back to us through the speakers, giving a rather too puddingy sound.

No need to discuss the girls: their roles are too brief to make it worthwhile complaining. The star of Pigmalion is the tenor. Cyril Auvity had all the notes, just about, but overall his performance was what the French would call “gentil.” It was scholastic rather than thrilling, very prettily shaped in the lyrical bits, with sometimes an unfortunate hint of Pop Idol in his portamento; but he lacked the percussive diction or clarion thrust needed to carry off the two bravura arias, “L’amour triomphe” and “Règne l’amour.” These should be breathtaking; taking huge gulps of air after the (fearsome) runs is not what I mean by that… The orchestra and chorus were best, though I’d have preferred more incisive playing and more bounce to Rameau’s marvellous rhythms. It was a pleasure, nevertheless, to hear this great score again.

The aestheic of the set was 70s disco. Shiny bead curtains and strings of fairy lights made a rectangular space, and luminous sputniks came down from above. There were occasional kitschy projections at the rear. Poor Pigmalion, unshaven, dishevelled and in a ragged blue smock, looked like he was waking with the hangover of a lifetime. The dancers wore white cheesecloth tunics and indulged in the kind of soppy antics only ballet still dares to deliver. Ms Armitage was booed a little at the end.

As the opera critic of a London daily said to me as we left, we might as well have stayed at home and listened to a CD. For the price of the tickets, we could have bought dozens.

The Rameau was preceded by some inoffensive, brief dance scenes set to Ligeti, this time explicitly amplified from Sony and The Ligeti Project CDs.

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