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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Rethinking Rameau: On Bringing Two Rarely Seen Opera-Ballets to the Stage

Rameau, maître à danser
Photo: Philippe Delval

By Sophie Daneman

Daphnis et Églé and La naissance d’Osiris—two unfamiliar titles, two works that have rarely seen the light of day. Setting them alongside Rameau’s immense tragédies-lyriques one might be tempted to dismiss them as flimsy entertainments, but on closer inspection they reveal a world full of charm, humanity, sensuality, and grace—products of a genius in his 70s with all the wealth of his life and art behind him. These are not pieces written for the opera houses of Paris but for the private, more intimate, court performances at Fontainebleau. Away from the glare of the Paris critics at a time when the musical world was in the throes of the tumultuous Querelle des Bouffons (a battle of musical rivals France and Italy), Rameau was able to experiment with more European styles and, despite the obvious constraints of space (possibilities for “les merveilles” being somewhat limited), there is a great sense of freedom that emanates from these scores—Rameau making his own journey through the culturally diverse world of the Age of Enlightenment.

The plots of both these works are simple and in the case of La naissance d’Osiris almost non-existent. But we are in the world of the opéra-ballet where this lightness of touch becomes a virtue. In the great complex dramas of Rameau’s tragédies-lyriques the dances can easily become set pieces, divorced from the action; but here there is a true democracy of disciplines and an opportunity for a seamless flow of drama and dance, unencumbered by intricate plot.

From our very first meeting, Françoise Denieau and I were in complete agreement that we wanted this fluidity to be our point of departure. The natural outcome of this was to try to create a strong sense of community, not just among the performers themselves but also a fictional one that could span both operas, and where expression of emotion, be it physical, vocal, or instrumental (the orchestra being part of the performance space) comes from a shared response, from mutual hopes and fears. And at the heart of this sense of community I hope we can reveal the great humanity which is so prevalent in Rameau’s music—particularly in these more fragile one-act operas.

Photo: Philippe Delval
For the 18th-century audience, the pastoral represented a release from contemporary stress. Indeed, for every age, the notion of the idealized rural community has always exerted a powerful sense of wish-fulfillment, reverie, and nostalgia. As such, there are no constraints and there is no obligation to create a visual palette that is slavishly 18th century. The world we hope to create is one of authentic human beings with timeless concerns and so we want this pastoral to be recognizably real. And yet the particular eloquence of this music and its intrinsic elegance is hard to divorce from the natural grace of the 18th-century aesthetic. Alain Blanchot and I have worked together to try to find a milieu that reflects the music—its refinement, sensuality, ornamentation, but also its simpler, natural, human qualities; Baroque shapes deconstructed with elements of rougher, more realistic textures of leather, straw, and hessian. An idealized society maybe—but one to which a modern audience can relate.

There is no precedent for these works being performed together. They are in many ways very different, yet there are also some striking similarities, with the characters of Love and the High Priest featuring in both and each boasting delightful thunder scenes. La naissance d’Osiris, written for the birth of the Duke of Berry (the future Louis XVI), has, despite its title, no mention of Egypt whatsoever and the climate is pure French pastoral. The basis for the story of Daphnis et Églé is immediately accessible to a modern audience (who doesn’t know of someone who has mistaken love for friendship?). But in our pastoral universe the devices of temples and gods, so rooted in a formal antiquity, could appear contrived or artificial. And so I decided to make our community come together to enact this set piece as a play within a play—a home-made drama of deities and high priests seen through their eyes. The first half, ending with human love, makes way for the second where, having rehearsed and imitated the divine, our mortals receive a visit from the real thing. Far from the projected fantasies of the enacted version, these gods appear not in stereotypical regalia but as simple, abstract, neutral figures, the blank pages we each require them to be. What begins in the first half as hand-made magic—the paper wings on the girl playing Cupid, or a storm scene created with amateur percussion—ends with a “real-life” storm and Jupiter’s descent to announce the greatest blessing of human love on earth—the birth of a child.

I first met William Christie over 20 years ago as a student working with him on Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie. He opened my eyes to this wonderful repertoire and sparked a love affair with French music which is as strong in me now as it was then. My long relationship with Les Arts Florissants (and by extension with the Théâtre de Caen) has been of huge importance to me and to be part of their “community” has been a true blessing. It is a great privilege for me now to embark on this new adventure of staging these two exquisite pieces by a composer so dear to my heart in the company of my musical family.


Sophie Daneman is the director of Les Arts Florissants’  Rameau: maître à danser, at the Howard Gilman Opera House from Mar 1—3.


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1 comment:

  1. They play in a natural way. Nothing makes them sad or happy. The last part is the most intriguing.

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