October 21, 2011 10:07 pm

The French exception

No UK opera house has dared to risk baroque’s third man, Jean-Philippe Rameau, on its own stage – until now

It has taken a while but British opera houses are now embracing the baroque revival with gusto. Handel has become a repertory staple, while Monteverdi, Purcell and Cavalli have all been given greater exposure. There is, however, one glaring absence from the party: Handel’s contemporary across the Channel, Jean-Philippe Rameau. Despite being lauded in France and much of Europe, Rameau has been neglected in the UK, dismissed by some as frivolous and by others as academic – trapped, you might say, between baroque and a hard place.

This has not been for want of trying. In 1974 Lina Lalandi, the Greek-born harpsichordist and founder of the English Bach Festival, presented a concert version of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes at the Banqueting House, Whitehall. The following year, John Eliot Gardiner gaveLes Boréades its first modern revival at Queen Elizabeth Hall. And in 1977 Lalandi hired Covent Garden on a Sunday for a staged performance of La princesse de Navarre. Other projects include Platée at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1997 (a Royal Opera production), Les Paladins at the Barbican in 2004 and concert performances from touring French ensembles including Les Arts Florissants and Le Concert d’Astrée. Yet not one of the UK’s leading opera houses has dared to risk Rameau on its own stage – until now.

A new production of his 1737 opera Castor et Pollux, opening at English National Opera this week, is attempting to challenge the misconceptions that have surrounded this composer and set something of a precedent.

“I think the shadow of Handel – the British connection with Handel – is enormous but Monteverdi is now completely entwined in British cultural life,” says director Barrie Kosky. “Rameau is the last of these three great baroque music theatre composers to make it.”

This bias is perhaps unsurprising. While the late Victorians were busy venerating Handel, many in France (some riding a wave of anti-Wagnerian feeling) were keen to promote Rameau as their own national hero. It is telling that the first fully staged modern revival of Castor et Pollux – a lavish and expensive undertaking – took place at Paris’s Palais Garnier in March 1918, as the first world war continued to rage and the national spirit flagged. The pioneering work of William Christie and other Rameau specialists in France since the 1970s has only contributed to a perception of French expertise.

“It’s important to stress the role of Le Centre de musique baroque de Versailles,” explains Christophe Rousset, director of French baroque ensemble Les Talens Lyriques. “They have ignited a revival of interest in French baroque music.” However, Rousset adds that “a Rameau festival does not exist, as it exists for Handel, Bach and Pergolesi in their birthplaces.”

Another consideration when comparing the operas of Rameau and Handel is the context in which they were produced. While Handel was writing blockbuster hits for London’s theatre-going public (an audience that remains largely unchanged), Rameau inherited the courtly traditions established by Louis XIV’s favoured composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. His narratives were usually sourced from ancient mythology (Castor and Pollux, the tale of the Spartan twins, follows a “bromance” theme rather than any conventional boy-meets-girl narrative) and there was a strong emphasis on dance. Both these factors present a challenge for modern interpreters. Castor et Pollux has fewer dance divertissements than Rameau’s subsequent opéra-ballets, but Kosky and conductor Christian Curnyn have filleted the piece in order to sustain a sense of drama.

“We decided we could not cut all the dance music, firstly because it’s wonderful, and secondly because it would be like cutting the legs off a body,” Kosky explains. “We thought we could cut about 20 to 30 per cent, and then find a way of using the rest of it to continue the story.”

Laura Tatulescu in the ENO’s ‘Castor and Pollux’

In other ways, Rameau is extraordinarily ahead of his time, not least in his approach to word setting: instead of structuring the vocal score with discrete sections of recitative and formal da capo arias he employs a more flexible array of phrases. The effect is both exhilarating and infuriating, with lines of exquisite beauty and promise all too quickly deflating, and long sections of decorative recitative. There is just one showcase aria in Castor et Pollux, “Tristes apprêts” (which achieved some degree of fame alongside tracks by Gang of Four and Siouxsie and the Banshees in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 biopic Marie Antoinette) and the rest of the score is characterised by a strong sense of continuity. Some scholars have even argued that Rameau – via Gluck – anticipated the through-composed style of Wagner.

In their orchestration, too, Rameau’s operas are distinctive, as Curnyn explains. “With Handel we’re used to very string-heavy orchestration ... but the centre of sound for Rameau is the two flutes and the two bassoons,” he says. “It’s an entirely different sound world, a French sound world, and there are many ways in which this piece is closer to [Debussy’s] Pelléas than it is to [Handel’s] Ariodante.”

Many directors have used sex, drugs and violence to make early operas more relevant to modern audiences – and gain extra publicity. Given the expense of Rameau productions, with their huge casts and technical demands, there is even greater need for commercial success. Kosky’s work has proved controversial in the past (his production of The Barber of Seville had the chorus wear pig heads, his L’incoronazione di Poppea spliced Monteverdi’s score with songs by Cole Porter); I ask him about the adult content warning attached to Castor and Pollux. “I never do anything to provoke intentionally,” he replies. “There’s nothing radical or controversial about the way we’ve staged it. The reason for the warning is that there’s an element of nudity in the production.”

Some 20 years ago, ENO won acclaim for two landmark productions of Handel’s Xerxes and Julius Caesar; it is hoped that Castor and Pollux will likewise mark the beginning of a Rameau revival. There are positive signs: Glyndebourne (in many ways an ideal setting for Rameau, being intimate and vaguely courtly) cancelled plans for Hippolyte et Aricie around a decade ago but are rumoured to be planning a new production for 2013.

“Over the last 20 years the opera-going public has become a lot more sophisticated, they want new experiences and to hear undiscovered masterpieces, operas they don’t know,” Kosky says. “I think it’s the duty of opera houses to bring these major pieces to the audience’s attention.”

‘Castor and Pollux’ runs at ENO from October 24-December 1, www.eno.org

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