Rameau - Les Paladins

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris - Saturday May 22 2004

Les Paladins puts the fun back in "divertissement"

"Jamais deux sans trois," the French say: bad things come in threes. After a poor Eliogabalo in Brussels and a boring Les Boréades in Lyons I expected the worst of the comédie-ballet Les Paladins. But, as I think I've said before, expecting the worst can be good policy: my luck turned, and how. This production is young, joyful, bright as a button; it puts the fun back in divertissement. It's the best thing in Baroque since - you guessed it! - Platée.

However, in less than an hour I have a cab to the airport. I'll tell you more about Les Paladins when I get back from Rajastan...

Edited one week later:

I come back from Rajasthan - having learnt to spell it better - to find that there's a perfectly representative review in UK daily The Independent. What it doesn't say is how much better than usual - i.e. than the voiceless wonders baroque opera tends to throw up, especially under Christie – the singers were. I'd like in particular to draw attention to the young Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu, who intrigued us all, as an unknown singer, last season with an outstanding performance of the brief sailor's song in the second part of Les Troyens. He has a very lyrical high tenor voice with the kind of agility and bite needed for this French declamatory style, and diction even better than most of those around him in this production. As his voice matures, we may have in him a tenor of the Alfredo Krauss kind, a Werther and a Faust. One to watch, definitely.

He was surrounded by a true team of singer-actor professionals, all of them joining in the fun by attempting now hip-hop, now a couple of classical ballet steps... Everyone on stage seemed to be having a whale of a time.

As to the score itself, it's a virtuoso display of the inventiveness, colour, wit, charm and audacity (yes, he was another composer who suffered from performers' refusing his stuff as "too hard") that seem to me characteristic of Rameau and make Händel and Bach look strait-laced in comparison. Anyone wishing Händel had done more Fireworks should welcome Les Paladins with open arms.

The production was filmed, so we can expect it to come out on DVD some time in the coming year, I guess. I, for one, will buy it immediately.

Review in The Independent:

Les Paladins, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris. By Lynne Walker, 27 May 2004

In his last-but-one opera, Les Paladins, Rameau surely had his tongue in his cheek. It's a strangely superficial mixture of song and dance numbers, in which some serious rivalry between two suitors is dressed up in magical transformations and buffoonery. An extravaganza, in fact, it has scarcely been revived since its premiere in 1760.

Now, in an innovative and lively co-production by Paris's Chatelet Theatre and the Barbican in London, the inventive dance and visual elements steal the show. Though they may occasionally distract, they in no way detract from the winning combination of William Christie, his period band Les Arts Florissants, and an ensemble who act expressively and sing compellingly. This is scarcely opera in its recognisable form though it may provide a clue as to the direction it will follow in the future.

There is no set, no props as we know them and little conventional interaction between the singers. Instead, José Montalvo has conceived a parallel element to the music in a series of backdrops combining cunning video projections - involving witty graphics and kaleidoscopic collages - and beguiling trompe-l'oeil effects with nimble and nifty stage business. Using the fables of La Fontaine as a kind of source reference (although this opera's origins actually lie not in one of his fables but in his story "Le petit chien qui secoue de l'argent et des pierreries"), Montalvo has devised an intriguing parade of animated images. These contain allusions to the opera plot and characterisation, and bring in contemporary and often tangential ideas, while paying droll homage to baroque idiom. Animals play a major role, from a mobile trail of little ponies to a positive safari of wild beasts, while castles disappear, clouds open and fantastic visions unfurl in a playful and richly detailed stage spectacle.

With dancers from his own company, Montalvo and his choreographic partner Dominique Hervieu put a huge range of dance styles from different cultures at the service of Rameau's music, to terrific effect. Hip-hop, break-dancing, street swing and acrobatics are all delivered with breath-taking skill and speed. Bodies shake in perfect time to the onomatopoeic effects in the orchestra or mime the elaborate vocal ornamentation, with sometimes even the tiniest gestures seamlessly synchronised with the split-level projections upstage.

Colourful, daring and audacious, Montalvo's concept is entered into whole-heartedly by the soloists and chorus, whose buoyant interpretation of the score belies the theatrical and physical hoops through which they cheerfully jump. And not even the fairy, Manto, could conjure such magical sounds as Christie coaxes from his excellent players.


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