|François Boucher, Pygmalion and Galatea (1767)|
Sickness is not such a peril at the Staatsoper, where an alternate Donna Elvira is usually hanging around. But when you're Les Arts Florissants at the Theater an der Wien, you're performing Rameau's Anacréon and your Anacréon, Alain Buet, can't sing, you have a big problem. I found their solution to this problem rather perverse and unsatisfying, but this was still an enjoyable evening. The second half, Rameau's Pygmalion, with an intact cast, was much better.
Rameau, Pygmalion and Anacréon. Theater an der Wien, 12/19/2010. Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie with Emmanuelle de Negri (Priestess/Statue), Sophie Karthäuser (Amour), Ed Lyon (Pygmalion), Virginie Thomas (Céphise) Alain Buet acting with three chorus members [sorry, did not catch their names, they weren't noted in the program] singing (Anacréon).REMINDER: Watch me hilariously misunderstand people on Twitter!
This was billed as a concert, but was in fact semi-staged. Both works were staged as if they were operas, though, which they aren't. They're actes de ballet, which would have just have been sections of a larger mixed program with dancers and elaborate scenery and costumes. Dramatic action, while not quite as thin as earlier French court music, often would take a backseat to spectacular moments. While the half-hearted staging did help tell the story, absent magnificent visuals, dance, and the variety of a full court entertainment program, it also served to point out the plots' thinness. I would rather have had no staging at all so as to better concentrate on the music and create a magnificent staging in my head from that. Because the music is excellent!
This was the second of Rameau's two Anacréon settings, from 1757 to a text by Pierre-Joseph Bernard. The poet Anacreon has dedicated his life to both the muses of Love and Wine, but the cult of Bacchus does not approve of this mixture (how to choose between these two, though?). Then Love shows up and helps people work things out. It's not the most dramatic thing but the music is energetic, florid, and brilliant. The music flows between more recitative-like passages and more sung sections with disconcerting smoothness, and the harmony can be a bit out there in chromatic-land. There is also a picturesquely composed thunderstorm, complete with thunder sheet and pizzicato rain.
To substitute for the ailing Alain Buet, three members of the Les Arts Florissants chorus sang his part while he acted it in the semi-staging. I'm not sure why three people split the part, maybe there wasn't time for any one person to learn it all, but the way it was split up was incomprehensible. Some sections were sung by all three together (is Buet that loud?), and other parts quickly jumping between the three men. Kudos for them taking on a hard job at short notice, but I found the implementation obtrusive and while they all had fine voices they were clearly sight-reading. This was a major barrier to enjoying this piece, unfortunately, Anacréon is by far the largest role. In other roles, Sophie Karthäuser was a poised and meticulous Amor, but Emmanuelle de Negri's more spontaneous and vivid priestess was more interesting.
Pygmalion (1748) is a more dramatic piece, and de Negri's theatrical talents made the awakening of the statue a surprisingly fascinating moment. It starts off quite seriously with a sad opening monologue for Pygmalion and a scene with his girlfriend, who is understandably petrubed to have a rival who is carved out of stone. After another long Pygmalion monologue, the statue comes to life to general amazement and then happy rejoicing. The progression from tragédie-lyrique-like music to the exuberant dances at the end give the work more forward momentum. Ed Lyon delineated the changing moods of Pygmalion's monologues masterfully. He does not have the warmest voice, but his tenor has the flexibility and focus for this style. De Negri again captivated (I wonder if she planned that her pretty turquoise dress would match the background of the Il Postino set so exactly?), and Karthäuser again was polished and perfect. However, I am sending Lyon to Lucy's Committee for Dubious Wardrobe Choices for his shiny suit.
The orchestra was positioned behind the staging area, and in Anacréon were frequently drowned out by the chorus. Despite the singers having their backs to Christie, the coordination was amazingly good. I wondered if the pit might have been better acoustically, though. Christie and his singers know this music backwards and forwards, and despite its great rhythmic flexibility play it with naturalness and ease. Much credit for this goes to Christie himself, who kept things energetic and, I don't know how, together (to someone who has only played in modern practice orchestras, the gestures of many early music conductors are incomprehensible--but whatever Christie is doing, his group understands it). The orchestra sounded as great as ever, particularly the wonderful oboe section. Despite the problematic Anacréon, an evening to remember.
Also, I believe I may have been sitting in front of Gerard Mortier. I do not know why he was there, but it sure looked like him. Apparently the French ambassador to Austria was also in the crowd.
In January, the Theater an der Wien will be performing Rameau's Castor et Pollux fully staged and conducted by Christoph Rousset, featuring his orchestra Les Talens Lyriques. I've loved hearing all these great early music orchestras this season and am looking forward to adding another to my collection.