Historically informed performance à l’outrance

The works of the French baroque are a rather specialized taste.  Some people love them, some not so much.  There are also strong views on performance style.  Some people favour an essentially modern treatment as in Robert Carsen’s Paris Garnier production of Rameau’s Les Boréades.  Others are fans of the fantasy baroque approach taken by the likes of Opera Atelier.  I’ve seen good examples of both approaches.  What I haven’t seen before is a rigorous attempt to recreate a 17th century staging complete with period appropriate scenery and stage effects.  In 2008 such an attempt was made at the Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique in Paris.  The work involved was the first true opera in French; Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione.  The results are very interesting.

Director Benjamin Lazar and music director Vincent Dumestre and their design team really go the whole hog on the HIP idea.  The sets are serried flats lit as they would have been in the 1600s (though electric light rather than candles are used).  The acting and singing style is highly stylized even to the point of using period pronunciation.  The full panoply of 17th century “engines” are used for the spectacular bits with characters being flown in and plenty of smoke and mirrors.  The ballets use the limited choreographic repertoire of the time.  All in all it really feels like something Louis IV might have watched.

The core of the forces employed are the orchestra, chorus and dancers of the Poème Harmonique.  They are supplemented by a large group of soloists usually doubling up on the myriad solo roles.  The pick of the bunch are the leading characters played by André Morsch and Claire Lefilliâtre and Arnaud Marzorati who is quite funny as Arbas and doubles up as Pan.  It’s all quite satisfactory musically in a french baroque sort of way; pretty but, ultimately, a bit dull.  The same can be said for the staging.  It’s very well done but, when all’s said and done, a two hour classical allegory of Louis XIV’s struggle with William of Orange (again!) has a hard time keeping me engaged.

The DVD presentation is very good.  The picture is excellent, Martin Fraudreau’s video direction is extremely competent and the Dolby 5.1 sound is more than decent.  The documentation has good contextual material but an indexed synopsis would be a good addition.  There are English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian and Chinese subtitles.

I’d say this was a must see for fans of the French baroque and well worth a look for anyone interested in 17th century performance style in particular or HIP in general.

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5 thoughts on “Historically informed performance à l’outrance

    • I wouldn’t call this dull, except for the ballets. It’s maybe a bit one paced and precious but that’s my usual reaction to French baroque music. Give me Purcell every time. I just can’t imagine Lully ever lowering his nose enough to write “Your hay it is mowed” or being ‘simple’ enough to write “Fairest Isle”.

      • On the other hand Lully paired with Molière is a bit of fun. Try Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for that, same team and approach.

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