The only thing better than Rameau would be Rameau as performed by Les Arts Florissants under William Christie, and if it is staged by Robert Carsen at the Opéra national de Paris, you have a perfect night of theater. Les Boréades was the last of Rameau's tragic operas, after a latter career as a court composer providing musical entertainments. It was planned for a performance in the year before the composer's death and mysteriously abandoned. Since its revival by John Eliot Gardiner, the opera has been recorded and performed, including several instrumental pieces included in Marc Minkowski's remarkable disc Une symphonie imaginaire in 2005 (the Tambourin in this YouTube clip is a delight).
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Rameau, Les Boréades, B. Bonney, P. Agnew, L. Naouri, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie (2004)
The libretto is based on one of those obscure mythological stories so beloved of the 18th century. According to custom the Queen of Bactria, Alphise, must marry a descendant of Boreas, god of the north wind. In love with a man named Abaris, she steps down from the throne to marry him. Boreas whisks her away to his dark kingdom, only to be pursued by Abaris. Apollo saves the lovers, revealing that Abaris is his son by a Boread nymph, the deus ex machina moment shown in the image at left, with Nicolas Rivenq suspended above the stage.
The singing is generally exquisite, beginning with Barbara Bonney as Aphise, vocally rich and dramatically affecting. Paul Agnew's voice has positives and negatives, tending towards a fluttery vibrato and discoloration at loud dynamics, but when he hits those high haute-contre notes in that pure head voice ("Volez, volez, zéphyrs, hâtez-vous"), all is forgiven. Laurent Naouri's Boréas is equal parts thick-timbred menace and oily stage presence. Toby Spence has a nice turn as a full-voiced evil suitor, Calisis (see the YouTube video below). Christie's leadership of Les Arts Florissants is, as usual, an inspiration: a Baroque ensemble in the pit of a major opera house and sounding phenomenal. Carsen's staging is minimalistic, odd, but visually delectable, with tableaux of seasonal color behind the stark white-black costumes, much of it skimpy (sets and costumes by Michael Levine). The dancers -- all of the dance music is included, saints be praised -- are members of the Canadian troupe La La La Human Steps, choreographed by Édouard Lock, with his signature mixture of classical steps and jerky, hyperphysical movement. A DVD well worth owning -- and the only version of this worthy opera -- not least for the 60-minute documentary featuring interviews with all of the artists involved.
Opus Arte OA 0899 D
Toby Spence as Calisis, Les Boréades, directed by Robert Carsen,
Opéra national de Paris, 2003
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