The English weren’t the first cowpat composers. Jean-Philippe Rameau raised the art of frolicking in the fields to such heights he filched pastoralism for the French. Rameau’s mastery of landscape is not just a question of orchestral colour, though that’s a large part of it — those goaty oboes, lowing bassoons, cooing flutes transport you straight to the manger. It’s that the very shape of his music, the softly curved lines that slide into burbling ornamentation, follows the contours of the rolling field and riverbank.
The glory of his opéra-ballet Les Fêtes d’Hébé (1739) is the final act’s woodland romance that unfurls like a sunrise in the sexy Musette. We start the opera, however, with the sounds of the fêtes, the strings streaming down on us like confetti. What exactly did the director hear in these acts of exuberance — musical counterparts to the rococo paintings of Fragonard — to think the music suited an anaemic white set and characterisation communicated through coloured Lycra, comedy swimming caps and trading-floor semaphore?
Had Thomas Lebrun (director, set designer and choreographer) just told the stories — simple little things set up to glorify the art forms that should whirl deliciously around them — it might have shown the audience what a charming piece this is. One of Rameau’s most immediate hits with the public, the work had 80 performances in its first year and several revivals.
The characters are familiar enough. Feisty bohemians, creative dropouts, sex-obsessed hippies fight it out with the fustily divine, semi-divine and regal using only, in the words of the work’s subtitle, ‘Les Talens Lyriques’ — their lyrical talents. In essence it’s X Factor, ancient Greek-style, an egotistical talent contest spread over three acts, involving representatives from poetry, music and dance.
In this production, however, the only contest was a race to the bottom. Anything you can do, I can do worse, was the motto of the fumbled relay between eye, ear and limb. The director, meanwhile, seemed to be playing pass-the-parcel in reverse: wrapping and obscuring, wrapping and obscuring. It’s a French favourite, this version of the game.
Were Lebrun Merce Cunningham, he might have got away with the abstractions. But his club-floor geometry, star jumps and swishy arms was pure Bez. He didn’t even have the energy to follow through on his wilful non-literalism, projecting stock footage on to a large screen to indicate that we were in a Field, or Wood, when he ran out of ideas. Why is it always the adults who mess things up in college opera productions? A UK première (this was the work’s first staged outing here) surely deserved better.
The Royal College of Music Baroque Orchestra and the choir Les Chambres, conducted by Jonathan Williams, were messy, darkly coloured, vigorous and highly enjoyable. The singing made you realise how hard French baroque opera is to pull off, the one standout being the clean, heady voice of Pauline Texier, a confidant, coquettish Hébé/Églé, who had more charisma in her left eyebrow than the others put together.
By chance the French outfit Les Talens Lyriques (named after the opera) were in town last Sunday. It gave us Ramistes another chance to get our fix. A few weeks before that the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM), under Spanish viol player Jordi Savall, was also hawking a Rameau suite. Both programmed Rameau next to work by French and German contemporaries. It was fascinating — the freshness of Rameau’s way with rhythm and form, how he squeezes more out of his instruments than anyone else.
The AAM at the Barbican breathed humanity and warmth into his windy, woodland farewell, Les Boréades, written at the age of 79. The gem here is the ‘Entrée de Polymnie’, Rameau at his bittersweet best, the gentle tumbling of bassoon and strings interrupted by a crumbly middle. Heaven. As always with Rameau, the ornamentation is never there to dazzle, as in Italian opera, but instead to destabilise sound, to shade emotions, turn sour what is sweet and sweet what is sour.
At the Wigmore Hall, following a ravishing performance by Jocelyn Daubigney of a shape-shifting flute concerto by Jean-Marie Leclair, the classy Talens Lyriques, under the sprightly direction of Christophe Rousset, galloped into the suite from Castor et Pollux. From the fierce overture, the bassoon babbling ballistically as if she’d swallowed a bee, we travel through drunken country dances, a folicky Minuet and a bosky Sarabande inhabited by a flute doing a very fine impression of an owl.
And if all this sounds too fragrant, too French for you, we ended with two meaty chaconnes from Castor and Dardanus. It shows off Rameau’s skills as an architect and magician, the structure dissolving before our ears as the variations enter the wilds.