Rameau - Les Boréades

Opéra de Lyon - Saturday May 15 2004

Conductor: Marc Minkowski. Production: Laurent Pelly. Alphise: Mireille Delunsch. Abaris: Paul Agnew. Borée: François Lis. Sémire/Nymphe: Magali Léger. Borilée: Marcel Boone. Polymnie/Amour: Malia Bendi Merad. Apollon: Thomas Dolié. Calisis:Tom Allen. Adamas: Stéphane Degout. Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra de Lyon.

We don't seem to be having much luck with pre-Mozartian opera* at the moment. We spent last Sunday afternoon on an unplanned walking tour around Brussels, having quit Cavalli's Eliogabalo at the first intermission. (The press kindly informed us, later, that things had got much better in part two. Oh, well...) Yesterday morning (Saturday), I flew in to Charles de Gaulle from Atlanta, waited an hour for bags, tooled into Paris to miss the 12 o'clock train to Lyon by minutes and finally took the 1 p.m., arriving at 3...

Why bother? Well, on paper it looked like Lyon had assembled a dream team that would easily erase our unhappy memories of Paris's too-trendy production of Rameau's Les Boréades. (Which, incidentally, we also quit at the intermission.) Minkowski and Pelly have together been responsible for two of Paris's best shows in recent years, and you'd have to be new round here not to have seen me gamely - and with no personal financial interest in their commercial success - plugging the DVDs: La Belle Hélène and Platée. Same set designer too; and Mireille Delunsch sings La Folie on the video...

What can I say? Well, with dinner booked for 11.30, there was no point in leaving early, so we stayed to the end. And it was, after all, a chance to see the Lyon opera house. Outside, it's a classic 19th-century job: steps; a row of arches to make a porch; above that, a row of columns framing arched windows to make a foyer; above that, a row of statues on the parapet. But in the 80s it was gutted and rebuilt inside by Jean Nouvel in true 80s GTI style: black gloss foyer, black matt auditorium and touches of brass and red in the corridors. The chunky balconies and boxes look like they've been chopped out of rubber. It had the great advantage of being wholly invisible when the lights were down.

But almost as soon as the curtain went up we could tell this was one of those shows in which the body language of all involved gives the game away: they know they're involved in a turkey. Minkowski conducted with his usual vigour, but the orchestre de l'Opéra Lyon was out to demonstrate why period instruments are a good thing. They were out of their idiom, the worst thing being total lack of bite in the strings; that and a general lack of precision and agility in Rameau's supremely agile scoring.

I was once told by an insider that Minkowski deliberately reins in his singers. Either that is true, or Mireille Delunsch was, as the locals might say, "en petite forme." Hard to believe the programme notes, which tell us she's recently sung Violetta and plans soon to sing the Marschallin in Bordeaux and Mélisande in Paris. She was, however, considerably better versed in French declamatory style than the totally miscast Barbara Bonney in Paris. Paul Agnew was a great Platée (the comic role of the "ridiculous nymph” is scored for tenor) and sings with great delicacy and feeling, but lacks force for dramatic passages. Magali Léger - who was also (in a one-piece swimsuit) in La Belle Hélène, has a sweet but very small voice. The rest of the cast, with one exception, verged on the student level; not really acceptable in a house labelled "national." But voiceless wonders are the plague of baroque opera performances these days. The exception was the rising baritone (he'll be stuck with the epithet for some time I think: he's only in his 20s) Stéphane Degout (see my recent review of Werther). As I heard someone behind me say: "enfin une voix avec du timbre!" (at last a voice with timbre!).

I could also hear my neighbour to the left sighing with boredom as the evening wore on. Not the 80-year-old Rameau's fault, bless the old devil's rakish heart, but the fault of a lacklustre performance by feeble singers (Degout excepted, again) and an orchestra out of its normal repertoire, together proving once again how hard it is to get this stuff right. We will soon forget the dreary production in shades of grey, lavender, lilac and aqua, with Alphise's suitors looking like something left over from a provincial take on Star Wars and the inevitable modern dance troop writhing around half naked (I've nothing against nakedness, but why do things by halves?).

Fortunately, food is central to Lyonnais culture, so we felt perfectly justified, having slept in late after our late dinner, in skipping the fine arts museum and going straight to lunch - picking up chocolates at Bernachon on the way: "best in the world," remarked our waiter, spotting the bag. My oeuf en meurette and poulet de bresse à la crème, with a kir, a bottle of Gevrey Chambertin and a spot of champagne with the pudding, made up for the disappointing evening, and I dozed comfortably as the train home sped through the sunny Burgundy countryside.

*If Les Boréades can really be said to be pre-Mozartian, dating from 1764 and involving early clarinets...

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