Rameau - Zoroastre

Opéra Comique, Paris, Sunday March 29 2009

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Production: Pierre Audi. Choreography: Amir Hosseinpour. Zoroastre: Anders J. Dahlin. Abramane: Evgueniy Alexiev. Amelite: Sine Bundgaard. Erinice: Anna Maria Panzarella. Chorus and dancers of the Drottningholms Slottsteater. Les Talens Lyriques.

“You put your left leg in, your left leg out, in out in out and shake it all about…” I don’t think Amir Hosseinpour’s quirky modern ballets were meant to be comical and I don’t for a moment imagine he is familiar with that staple of English family weddings, the Hokey Cokey. But the Hokey Cokey (or France’s own party special, the “danse du canard”) is what came to mind during the ballet numbers at last Sunday’s Zoroastre.

The ballets weren’t the only thing wrong with it.

From what I’ve read, this Drottningholm production is on DVD, where it comes across better than on stage. The Drottningholm pedigree had me worried beforehand that it would be all eighteenth-century prettiness (which made a friend laugh, as we waited outside, that anyone else would be glad of it) but, though anchored in the period it avoided that.

The set was simple: a series of receding proscenium arches in storm-cloud grey with gold mouldings that reminded me half of Frigerio’s sets for Paris’s long-lived (but now dead) Strehler production of Le Nozze and half of the Rohan palace in Strasbourg. In the second part, some nice cardboard clouds descended to the stage; and in the last, the sets disappeared entirely, leaving just the bare boards and bricks, ironwork and steel stage doors in view.

The costumes (beautifully lit, by the way, throughout) managed to be at once sober and sumptuous: a Chardin palette of white and cream (the goodies), black and grey (the baddies) but swathes of material in abundant, well-tailored billows, pleats and folds; Watteau-style gowns à l’anglaise for the women and the more swashbuckling, bare-chested and pantalooned version of period fashions, with flowing, unpowdered hair, for the men. In fact, even though the first part (acts 1 and 2) was fairly anodyne (it could have been used to stage any 18th-century work), the men had already brought Pirates of the Caribbean to mind.

It was in the second part (acts 3 and 4) that it moved from just chic-but-dull to decidedly odd, with the behaviour of Abramane (increasingly deranged movements, rolling eyes and nervous tics) and his followers ever more reminiscent of the tongue-in-cheek villainy (the sword drawn across the tongue, for example) of Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew. By the final, unmemorable, act, both the friend who’d laughed at my fears, and the man at the back of our box who had coughed, sneezed and cleared his throat at all the quietest moments, had left.

But that wasn’t just because of the production. The principal women were fine enough: Anna-Maria Panzanella isn’t as good as she was, but still managed to sing with style, force and (in this production, rare) personality, and Sine Bundgaard rolled off the roulades prettily if not very audibly. But the men were not up to scratch. Evgueniy Alexiev’s voice was dark enough for the part, but many notes were off and some sounds plain ugly. He was not the only person singing out of tune. And Anders J. Dahlin, from whom I expected better, lacked the clarion declamatory power needed for Rameau’s heroic haute-contre roles and had all the heroic presence of a teenage geek.

What’s more, the Drottnginholm chorus are not Les Arts Florissants. So it was left to Rousset and his orchestra to do what they could; and though often I prefer Rousset’s balanced, bouncy style to Christie’s exaggerated tempi and occasional featheriness or Minkowski’s brute force, in this case the latter might have injected some dramatic oomph into the proceedings.

A disappointing afternoon, all the more so as we’ve been spoilt by so many good Rameau productions.


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