Reserved Rameau: Dardanus, Pygmalion Ensemble, Raphaël Pichon (conductor), Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, 26.4.2015 (JMI)
Iphise: Gaëlle Arquez
Dardanus: Reinoud Van Mechelen
Anténor: Florian Sempey
Teucer/Isménor: Nahuel Di Pierro
Vénus: Karina Gauvin
Amour/Bellone: Katherine Watson
Direction: Michel Fau
Sets: Emmanuel Charles
Costumes: David Belugou
Lighting: Joël Fabing
Choreography: Christopher Williams
Photo Credit: Frédéric Desmesure
The efforts made by opera houses in France to rediscover works from the French Baroque epoch, especially those by Lully and Rameau, are commendable. And Bordeaux is leading the way, thanks to its director, Thierry Fouquet. Last year we enjoyed a delicious performance of Les Indes Galantes; this year it’s the turn of another Rameau opera, Dardanus, and once again the result was completely convincing.
As most opera lovers know, French Baroque works have some special characteristics, in particular the presence of dance as well as song. This opera by Jean Philippe Rameau, the fifth in his catalogue, is no exception, and is one of the best from the period. It had its premiere in 1739 at Paris’s Palais Royal with the Académie de musique, and was revised by the composer in 1744. Three years ago in Bordeaux, the revised opera was done in a concert version. This time we had mainly the original opera of 1739 but with modifications, most notably the Prologue, taken from the 1744 version.
The plot is as simple and as complicated as in many other baroque operas, where gods and humans mingle and there is eventually a happy ending. The focus is on a love triangle composed of Iphise, daughter of Teucer, the king of Phrygia, who is in love with Dardanus (son of Jupiter) but promised to Anténor. The interventions of Vénus, Amour and a number of semi-deities finally bring about a happy resolution for the love of Iphise and Dardanus.
The stage production is by Michel Fau, who does a remarkable job of presenting the opera as theatre within a theatre. He makes good use of side boxes on the set itself, which hold small groups of chorus members. The sets consist of painted fabrics, which are very attractive, and trompe-l’oeil effects abound. The colorful costumes date from the time of the opera’s premiere. Dance is quite important in this opera, but it was not particularly outstanding. Overall the production is a perfect example of how to use imagination to make a bright production on a low budget.
The musical direction was in the hands of Raphaël Pichon, leading his Pygmalion Ensemble (which is based at Bordeaux’s Grand Théâtre). It’s the first time I’ve seen this young conductor, and he is a real find. An expert on French Baroque, he conducted with both energy and outstanding delicacy. Pichon is excellent in this repertoire, comparable to other French maestros such as Emmanuelle Haim, Christophe Rousset or Jean-Christophe Spinosi. The Ensemble Pygmalion is a magnificent group, both orchestra and chorus, and they gave a great performance under Mr. Pichon’s baton.
Mezzo soprano Gaëlle Arquez was a superb Princess Iphise. Her voice is wide and attractive, and she sings with expressiveness and emotion while not forgetting about declamation, so important in this kind of opera. I thought she was a real treat in the character.
Dardanus was interpreted by Belgian tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen. His voice is a somewhat whitish light tenor without much interest, but he is a good singer and convincing on stage.
Anténor, the rival of Dardanus, was played by French baritone Florian Sempey who was outstanding. He has a lyric baritone, attractive in timbre, and is an exceptional singer. No wonder that last year he was Figaro in Rossini’s Barber at the Pesaro Festival. At 25, this Bordeaux-born singer has a great future.
Nahuel Di Pierro was a well-suited interpreter of Teucer and the magician Isménor. Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin did nicely in the part of Vénus, with an attractive voice and easy agility.
In the secondary characters I should mention young soprano Katherine Watson, who sang the roles of Amour and Bellone, among others.
José M. Irurzun