Rameau - Castor et Pollux

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Monday October 13 2014

Conductor: Hervé Niquet. Production: Christian Schiaretti. Choreography: Andonis Foniadakis. Sets: Rudy Sabounghi. Costumes: Thibaut Welchlin. Lighting: Laurent Castaingt. Castor: John Tessier. Pollux: Edwin Crossley-Mercer. Télaïre: Omo Bello. Phœbé: Michèle Losier. Jupiter: Jean Teitgen. Mercure, un spartiate, un athlète: Reinoud van Mechelen. Cléone, une ombre heureuse: Hasnaa Bennani. Un grand prêtre: Marc Labonnette. Le Concert Spirituel.

Nothing new, of course, but it’s still funny how widely opinions on opera differ, making you wonder if there’s any value in reading or hearing anyone else’s. As I left the Théâtre des Champs Elysées last night, one friend I ran into exclaimed “I hated every minute!” But another simply said “On ne va pas bouder son plaisir” – literally “We aren’t going to pout (or pull faces) at our pleasure”, meaning even if the evening hadn’t been perfect, it would be fastidious deliberately to pick holes in it. I was more in sympathy with friend number two.

This new production is more beautiful than dramatically compelling: the acting is placid, even when in theory thunderbolts are crashing around, hell is opening up underfoot and heroes are either dying or returning from the dead. The drama could have done with being cranked up a good notch or two. Hervé Niquet’s refusal, with his brisk, no-nonsense tempi, to milk the mourning scenes also restrained the tragedy. So we were left, rather, to admire the plastic beauties of the staging.

The curtain was up as we entered the house, revealing… more of the house: the single set echoed (perfectly) the architecture and subdued decoration of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées itself. As my neighbour remarked, when the production goes to St Etienne, this will be less obvious. The building was, in its day (just before WWI, Paul Poiret period and just in time for the Riot of Spring), avant-garde: an all-concrete structure (though faced with marble and sculpted reliefs), discreetly and to some extent austerely neo-classical, paving the way for what would become art déco. The space on stage, with simple geometry and soft colours, like the areas front-of-house, repeated at the rear the square, fluted, gilded columns that flank the stage, reproduced some of the pale, rectangular, neo-classical frescoes in the foyer (by Bourdelle, I think), outlined in gold, and was lit from above by a copy of the house’s large, circular ceiling light - a plain, ground-glass affair with a design of clouds (it was said, before the theatre last closed for much-needed restoration, that one of those large glass panels had fallen and sliced an armchair in two).

Bourdelle and a wall painting
The ladies of the chorus were in taupe-ish grey, classically-draped dresses with one shoulder bare, while the women dancers had floatier, white versions; the soloists were in more glamorous but almost equally restrained drapery, Phoebé in green, Télaïre in gold lamé. The men of the chorus sometimes had black breastplates with moulded six-packs, or at others were in priestly robes; the soloists’ breastplates (and six-packs) were gilded, Pollux had a splendid gold, hoplite helmet, and at times he and Castor had equally splendid bi-metal shields, and lances. All the men had ample, skirt-like trousers – the male dancers bare-chested. Only Jupiter, when he descended on his cloud – cleverly, that ceiling light, with its cloud design – was in an 18th century coat, black with sparkly bits. His helmet was Greek, too, but shaped, up top, like an eagle’s head. Visually, the whole show, with its shades of grey and touches of gold in golden lighting, was almost too self-consciously harmonious. Eye candy, so to speak. But who could complain?

The acting, as I said, was fairly placid, whatever the plot brought on. It seemed a shame: a bit more acting oomph in such carefully-crafted surroundings could have made this an outstanding show. The ballets were, however, vigorous, writhing and semaphoric – they must have been exhausting for the dancers – and made the scenes in hell, wreathed in smoke and lit in red, quite effective, in a neo-baroque way. They were booed at the end, as usual, but the booing was soon out-clapped and out-cheered. I’ve seen worse ballets at the opera. Far worse – though friend number one claimed he never had, so perhaps he was among the booers. With all the mention of “ombres” (shades) underground, there was interplay with shadows on a screen lowered down, which, at the end, showed the expanding universe and a spinning zodiac.

The cast was young, so in some cases inexperience showed, but thankfully not a cast of voiceless wonders. Both tenors, John Tessier and Reinoud van Mechelen, were undeniably able to sing the bravura arias Rameau threw at them, which isn’t always the case with these young, HIP casts. Tessier was, however, at his limit and maybe a touch lightweight for the part; van Mechelen was not, belting out his “Sound the trumpets” (“Éclatez, fières trompettes”) number fearlessly, alone in front of the riveted gold safety curtain. Edwin Crossley-Mercer, a handsome figure with short grey hair (as opposed to Castor's, long and fair), confirmed the good impression he made on me in Platée earlier this year, even if, as I've often said here, rapid vibrato isn't to my taste. Jean Teitgen was a stentorian Jupiter, faultless to my ear, as I like noise, but probably a bit over the top to some people's.

Jupiter's cloud
Talking of widely differing opinions, the first review I've seen published raves about Omo Bello. She certainly has a good voice, but (I suppose this is quibbling), despite her good acting, facially at least, it seemed to me a bit premature for her to be singing a tragédienne's part like Télaïre and, to my (cloth, if you like) ear it seemed to me her intonation was at times slightly unstable. It struck me, then, that she was almost overshadowed by the interesting, bronzey timbre of Michèle Losier and even the very sweet singing of Hasnaa Bennani, unexpected in her lesser roles.

As mentioned above, Hervé Niquet's conducting is of the brisk, no-nonsense kind - to the point, very nearly, of heartlessness, undermining the work's tragic potential. I also think his orchestra lacks the rhythmic clarity, the springiness, of some of his confrères'. But that's just me, and at any rate the playing is at least efficacious. The sound is robust, almost lush. The chorus was excellent.

This is a handsome show. Cameras were in the house for television. Perhaps the production will make it to DVD, in which case it will be a nice addition to the Rameau catalogue. My mother, long a Rameau fan, will enjoy it.


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