Ballets de Noverre: Renaud et Armide / Médée et Jason

Opéra Comique, Paris, Saturday December 22 2012

"Ballets d'action" by Jean-Georges Noverre, music by Jean-Joseph Rodolphe. Created in Versailles and Milan in 1775.

Conductor: Hervé Niquet. Choreography: Marie-Geneviève Massé. Production: Vincent Tavernier. Sets: Antoine Fontaine. Costumes: Olivier Bériot. Lighting: Hervé Gary. Armide: Sabine Novel. Renaud: Noah Hellwig. La Chevalier danois: Olivier Collin. Ubalde: Bruno Benne. Médée: Sarah Berreby. Jason: Adrian Navarro. Céüse: Émilie Brégougnon. Créon: Daniel Housset. L'Éventail baroque dance company. Le Concert Spirituel.

Jean-Georges Noverre was a choreographer whose work, according to the Opéra Comique’s website, “by emancipating dance from opera, at last enabled the art of movement to tell its own stories […] With these action ballets, the ‘Shakespeare of the dance’ as the actor Garrick called him" (his success was international) "set the seeds for the full flowering of romantic ballet”. In other words, he has a great deal to answer for: Willies and all that. Or is it Wallies? “The Opéra Comique brings back to life a forgotten chapter in our choreographic history, along with two of the scores that contributed to the new genre."

I have no interest at all in sport, with or without music, so I don't usually go to ballets, but these two rarities were in this season's schedule. As far as I could tell, they were too early to include galumphing Willies, so along we went.

The production was "historic" in style inasmuch as the sets were painted flats, sliding in and out: for Renaud et Armide, rolling waves, rolling clouds, rolling rocks, an enchanted island rising up at the rear, a two-dimensional feast, some ornamental archways; for Médée, a "Grecian" palace setting of Ionic columns (which, at the end, collapsed gracefully) changing to a dark grotto notably by letting down ragged spears of black gauze. They were, however, electrically lit, more effective when the lighitng was dim, in Médée, than bright in Renaud et Armide. Costumes were Versailles-engraving style; Céüse's was very prettty indeed, like something out of a Pompeian fresco.

Renaud et Armide was a bit ho-hum - knights in lavishly feathered helmets and fringed skirts overcoming (appropriately) wet-looking sea monsters. My neighbour summed it up at the end: "C'est charmant, mais on s'en fout*." However, as the second half was to be as short as the first, we stayed on, and were glad we did as Médée et Jason was much more fun, once Médée got her gander up: "The most extreme fury takes hold of the sorceress. She transforms the palace into a dark grotto," as I said, "where she is joined by infernal spirits, followed by the menacing allegories of Fire, Iron and Poison, and finally Médée's wicked alter ego, the spirit of Evil. The two initiate a magic ritual, joined progressively by the infernal spirits. Urged on by the latter, Fire offers Médée a casket filled with devouring flames, Poison gives her an infected dress and Iron a dagger. Drunk with rage and power..." You know the rest of the story, and very exciting it all was - especially thanks to the score.

Even in Renaud et Armide,  I'd been agreeably surprised by the music, already thinking how much some 18th-Century freaks in North Carolina and elsewhere might enjoy it. But in Médée, Rodolphe really pulled the stops out. Whatever the French equivalent of pre-romantic Sturm und Drang is was here in abundance, with dramatic effects including truncated phrases and, more than once, double piccolos - supposing the orchestration was Rodolphe's own. It isn't easy to find information about him on the web, even in the documentation surrounding this production, which neglects him scandalously. So I don't know how reliable the orchestral score you can in fact download online is; and I found nothing of his on YouTube or for sale on Amazon. A pity: he was quite a discovery, especially as played, with verve, by the sometimes unruly but always expressive ("Algernon" school of music: anyone can play accurately) Concert Spirituel under Hervé Niquet. He looks, as he conducts, as if a particularly extravagant statue of St Bruno in a Bavarian baroque church had come to long-armed life .

*"It's charming but who gives a fuck?"

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