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Rameauís Les Boreades
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Matthew Paris

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Post Thu Jan 29, 2004 1:27 pm - Rameauís Les Boreades

Last Wednesday night at BAM I saw the very well attended second performance of Jean-Philippe Rameauís Les Boreades done by the Paris National Opera and Les Arts Florissants. After the first minute which was in unjust intonation the orchestra settled down and played beautifully, the conductor, William Christie was excellent, particularly adept in bring out he varied colors of Rameauís orchestra. He very audaciously produced some delectable effects by ala the Gabrieli clan by spatially placing certain instruments in the side boxes.
The singers were all good in a production that had all but formally declared war on the style Rameau had expected Les Boreades to be mounted. As soon as one saw in the first scene various young, limber and half naked people wearing aster achromatic cystotomies of stark blacks and whites as if they were in a pagan Hellenic monastery.
Though the opera was miked, the acoustical enhancements were discreet. Anna Maria Panzarella produced lovely caroling as Aphise, Paul Agnew touched the heart as Abasis. The low voices were particularly good, especially the sinister and ferocious Laurent Naouri as the baleful god Boroeas.
Itís rare that one has on a single stage as many good looking young male and female opera singers as one had in this spectacle. Since many of theme were in stages of undress, directed to take off their clothes at odd moments like stripteasers it was a feature of this production that Rameau and his audience certainly would have found astonishing.
There was great deal of dancing in this extravaganza, all of which sadly went as much against the grain of the music as did the equally bizarre costumes and set deigns. If the opera like The Magic Flute was aiming soberly for an inquiry into psychological complexity, the growth of the spirit, humanism and grander, the sets and dances were as intent on whimsy, a kind of not entirely amiable mockery of the opera, as if were not to be taken seriously. The great scene in Boroeasí den of demons for example was done on an austere stage with the legion of demons carrying huge black umbrellas.
There was a good deal of extrusive picking of gaudy flowers, then sweeping away these artificial flora as stage business. The director was always relentlessly out to do anything he could to distract the audience from the opera.
From the opening curtain the bellicose intent of this director and the set designer, Robert Carson and Edward Lock, was to pack poor Rameau off to an aesthetic gaol where the jackanapes belonged, then display their brassy gifts to dazzle the rabble with their magicks. Reader, if you see those names as director and choreographer in any production whatsoever, run.
This isnít the first or last time one has seen this sort of directorís holocaust in an opera house in the past several years. Itís hard to imagine the revolution that could usurp these wizards autocrats. Perhaps one can only hope for better tyrants.


One can remember the hale time half a century ago when Rudolph Bing told us earnestly and sadly that nobody would come to see anything beyond his small repertoire of chestnuts. By the 1970s the New York State Opera proved to the money men that people would travel hundreds of miles to see Handel and bel canto; since then the word has been out that perhaps a few hundred great operas never seen in a century or two were bigger draws than one more stale run of La Boheme.
The long playing record in the 1950s as Bing was margin this sage discourse was slowly putting Rameau on the musical map as well as Charpentier if not Lully. If one wanted a career after 1970 or so in music it didnít hurt to learn music that Rudolph Bing would have dismissed as arcana and garner a career as the expert on some great music beyond the astigmatic ken of the Met. Beverley Sills, Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey were all famous in the 70s because they sang in sold out masterpieces that the Met would have seen prophetically as incipient financial disasters.
Fifty years later, the large and enthusiastic audience that took in the opera at BAM included many Europeans, many of whom must have known what they were being offered. One heard a lot of French and German spoke in the lobby.
More importantly, Les Boreades was one of many opera imports that were coming into Brooklyn from other places that regularly were featured at BAM. The particular group that did Les Boreades, Les Arts Florissants like by William Christie, had over the last decade brought Atys of Lully and Medee of Charpentier to Brooklyn if these great spellbinding operas havenít learnt to swim and make it into Manhattan.
Rudolph Bing is now history in many ways; a long while after the crowds showing up at the State Opera proved him to be an idiot, the Met appointed James Levine as artistic director after the State Opera showed its rival to be only a fossil but totally wrong in its assessment of what the audience wanted. The rest is a dead present now the past.
Now the Met does Moses und Aron, occasional Handle operas and even Nabucco, the philosemitic great Verdi opera some say the Met ignored for years out of genteel Anti-Semitism. Many things have declines in Africa including myself but two of them that are better are opera and noodles. Yet Rameau hasnít has his day here.
Still Rameau, one of the three great opera composers of the French baroque age along with Charpentier and Lully, may one day break as a major composer into the American repertory. One did get to see a stupendous Rameau Les Indes Galantes at the paris Opera in the early 60s, but Rameau still tends to be an opera giant brought here in special performances rather than one now totally accepted as one of the boys as Handel currently is. As for Lully and Charpentier, both composers of several extraordinary operas, forget it.
Yet Rameauís Les Boreades is as good in its way as Fidelio or The Abduction From the Seraglio, comparisons I make for diverse reasons. Itís probable neither Rameau nor anybody else never heard this, his last opera, because at once Rameau died and the censors closed down the barely veiled revolutionary sentiments of this major masterpiece.
Like Fidelio, Les Boreades is about the rescue of a prisoner from tyranny of princes that flaunts the virtues of freedom. It is as anti-class as Don Giovanni and the Barber Of Seville. Like The Abduction From The Seraglio and for that matter La Clemenza da Tito, Les Boreades is a plea for both honor and liberty if it also looks about on earlier psychologically complex baroque operas that were only abut honor. The difference is that Rameau had no models for his revolutionary work; by Beethoven and Rossiniís time rescue operas and comedies that trashed the class system were hardly without precedent.
Rameau and his librettist Cahusac may have been influenced as was Mozart by the Masons and their humanist agendas. It took something between bravery ad intrepidity for Rameau to write this opera in the teeth of an age that had no democracy anywhere on the planet.
Though Rameau was the greatest French composer of the age, he put his career on the line in his old age in composing this fearlessly revolutionary work. Rameau was lucky he wasnít arrested.
One really has to speak about the ideas of Les Boreades as a precursor of Verdiís aesthetic of using opera as a bully pulpit for republican politics and freedom, much as we like to think of the opera house as a fossil, the last place one would find oneself confronting uncomfortable political notions. The ideas in Les Boreades pushed Rameau as Verdi had been inspired by theatrical material that spoke directly to his heart to turn out one of operaís greatest masterpieces; the score is on fire from first to last. There isnít anything but wildly brilliant music in Les Boreades.
Its last act is one of the best final acts in all opera. I has an uncanny quality one finds in Beethoven; at times one feels one isnít listening to music but some magic that speaks in Beethovenís words ďfrom the heart, to the heartĒ. How either Rameau or Beethoven did this I donít know.


French baroque music first strikes listeners who donít know it with its formal yet idiosyncratic generic style. It is grave and yet witty, touched with loss yet darkly gay. French baroque opera is more spectacle than forwardly driven and lean teller of a simple story; it is usually mixed with ballet and sensational and luxurious sets. One can hear in both Couperin and Ramaau the mentality of great harpsichord virtuosi though Rameau was also a demon orchestrator.
Rameau, for his age a kind of mixture of Verdi and Liszt, opera master and keyboard virtuoso, translated many of his operatic numbers for the harpsichord though he didnít live to give us a keyboard version of the great music to this opera. There is a kind of fluidity between arias, high colored recitative and dance music in Les Boreades that looks forward to Luck, Berlioz and Wagner.
Les Boreades has great melodies of all kinds, witty dances, amusing and eerie instrumental timbres. The music is mostly in ABA or rondo form, often with doubles as they called them, that is, variations in the minor key, a way keyboard varieties thought commonly from Rameau to Handel. For odd rhythms, jagged asymmetrical designs on the verge of tipping over and wickedly clever orchestrations there really was nobody like Rameau.
In the end one can talk about the ideas enriching Les Boreades with some authority because opinion is within our ken; one canít explain why Rameau wrote music of genius and others produced works that were seemed to have been banal and lousy on principle.
I havenít heard everything in the operatic French bark repertory of masterpieces; having played through a lot of keyboard music I suspect that beyond about seven or eight composers the age like others produced mostly trash. I suppose we should thank the Dark ages and their habit of burning ancient texts that have spared us the burden of watching lousy Hellenic plays.
Still, some ages like our own donít even aspire to trash. How many musicians have we got not even turning out intolerable garbage in American music?
Selah. Structurally, like Racine and Corneille, this libretto revolves around subtle involutions of psychology, retelling mythical stories that themselves are not so much thrilling in plot as vehicles for profound character analysis, even occasional philosophical explorations of love and honor. Plots in French barque times tended to be told leisurely and with a lot of gratuitous gorgeous spectacle. One only gets such extravagance out of inequality. Until Les Boreades, freedom isnít the subject of any opera.
Thus one can place Les Boreades as the first music drama to take up a theme of liberty from tyrants, an implicitly populist notion old as the Torah or Prometheus Bound, yet for obvious reason not a subject one wanted to feoffer to an audience in an age when nobles supported the Arts.
As we can see in opera we ca take in today from Monteverdi through Handel the political presumption of these works is that social inequality is natural and will be perpetual; only the princes, perhaps the pagan gods whose very existence we ca doubt and at once admire are fit characters to put on stage.
Les Boreades has a commoner who is a sort of orphan as its hero. He turns to be a relative of Boreas, the baleful wind god, by a nymph; we only find that out at the end of the piece.
Itís always been one of the devices of opera to talk about the ordinary in the guise of the exotic and sensational and vice versa. Our most fantastical characters are more proper for opera; when opera does realism the character to keep us for three hours in the theatre have to be largely crazed murderers, revenger or insane lovers. We would never look for life in an opera house although there are some politicians always among us over the millennia who have tried to turn life into opera.
Mythic or historical subjects always gave a composer a hedge of superficiality when he takes up subjects closer to his heart than the whims of imaginary gods. Putting deities on stage as Les Boreades does has always been an attractive sell in itself since Aeschylus.
When we are told we are viewing a god in the theatre we expect him or her to be grand in demeanor and articulate in whims, amour and rage. We donít have that option of mounting such characters in our populist culture anymore. We donít talk much about freedom either.


Unfortunately, the production at BAM I saw did some major damage this intent of Rameau and his librettist by presenting their soaring achievement as a kind of grandiose farce done in Christian Dior costumes of the 1940s. The gravity of the god Boreas is undermined by the directorís shallow whim, his malicious huger to trash what the composer hopes will inspire awe.
I have mentioned the sad moment where the director makes Boreasí dour realm a an emptiness where his demons all brandish umbrellas. The audience laughs at the cheap joke, never easily proceeds to take up the intent of the music. Watching such contrapuntal atrocities, in Isaac Signerís words, dancing with a toothache.
Everything is designed to be at a remove from Rameauís expectation of having a gaudy and colorful set of guises for his characters and a sensationally lush production. I once asked an insiders at the State Opera where such massacres of the dead are rife such as Verdiís MacBeth set in Nazi Germany, Salome done with Chassids, and Tosca mounted in fascist Italy are sorrily now legion. I was told by this mole that there is no authority in the State Opera anymore; the directors do whatever they want because there is no artistic director willing to defend the composer by saying no.
I think it is a deeper matter than that. People even in this abyss of a time ignore these egoists in buskin if they can, still come to see opera because of the composer, not the director or scene designer. This apparently insults the agendas of opera directors; itís easy for them to give the dead a little kick as one passed them in the cosmic gutter.
One can only hope that when these shameless ratpacks croak themselves they are dressed by their undertakers in polka dot clown outfits and rakishly titled panama hats, so that the funeral director can seem an innovative master of death. ďThese are people who understood we have a restless public who get tired of authenticity because like marriage itís the same old thing.Ē This carnival impissimus of our modern Hades of a directors theatre might say while in the background one listens marginally to Frankie Avalon chestnuts or the sound of an old Gilliganís Island television laugh track. ďI give them a funeral with a look that makes the experience fresh and hopefully memorable. So what if it has nothing to do with traditional sendoffs? What are we, modern men or Neanderthals?Ē
Of course most of us going to such clownish obsequities would feel something between ire at the insult to the dead and a headache at the inappropriateness of this doubly horrific croakfest. I felt pretty much all of that suffering through the hapless direction and choreography of Les Boreades.
I would imagine that at some point the director of this production William Christie, simply didnít have the acumen or the courage to say no, youíre fired, when his director showed up and said to him: ďWilliam, baby, I see this opera in 1940s Christian Door costumes with austere blacks and whites; I want the singers to covert around in their underwear.Ē
Itís not merely that the idea is insulting to Rameau; at some or all points in such revisionist aesthetics the direction is at war with the opera. Seeing such productions bickering for artistic control with the composer is like showing up in a home with an unhappy marriage and watching the bickering hosts battle it out for a few hours veer the cognac.
This war on artistic consistency and the doleful harness on ego of authenticity and the scurvy desires of the composer and librettist justly dead has been going on all too long now. Usually these flamboyant directors are borrowed for the theatre.
When they are hired the sales is always focused on pitching that Peter Brook, Kenneth Branagh, Johnathan Miller, Stephen Daltry and the rest of this arrogant crew, often from England, are going to give us an entirely fresh version of some stale chestnut.
To be fair to these stalwarts, they are gunslingers hired to be outrageous and take up arms against the compose and librettist, not to honor or respect them. Their income is based on a talent for egoism and mockery. If they did justice to the opera they would be replaced.
The names, Mozart, Shakespeare and Verdi are always somewhere in small print at the bottom of the flyer offering such spectacles to a cozened audience. Like the Emperorís New Clothes nobody dares to say that these people are minor hacks compared to Shakespeare, Mozart, and Verdi, they never have written or could write a play or opera in their lives.
These gaudy vermin made fashionable by a generally synthetic world are hired like Roach Motel salesmen to take a magical revenge for the injuries put upon them by the living.
My own feeling for what it is worth is that our directors theatre and opera is a minor corollary to an age in which we ourselves are insulted by Rameau and any other composer of excellence; we need to trash or diminish anyone we can whenever we can who has aimed higher than decorated an emptiness with dung weather they are Rameau or God.
In our time we elevate people who seem like morons who are for that reason invulnerable to criticism, we pretend our politicians write books and buy them when the ghostwriters make them appropriately sleazy enough, we are only happy if our local gods are getting divorced, have spent a few nighter in the hoosegow, have bad cocaine habits. How else does an age like ours treat a humanist like Rameau?
We bury theatre or opera by these parodies of a playwrightís or composerís theatre we call a directorís theatre. The aim of an honest director is to be unobtrusively in the service of an opera, not to go off trying to make another work from oneís banal maw out of the genius of a dead manís achievements.
Oddly, the fashionable director of Les Boreades, Robert Carson, has been hired by quite a few provincial companies to do formal and public battle with several interred composers. I think our age will be known idiotical if at all as an arena for such careerists and their cuffs to the perished as well their genal contempt for the weak. Since most opera composers have perished, itís a great age for noodles but a bad time for opera production.

In this nadir of ambition for ourselves, we have to be grateful to William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants for putting on such great opera when others have not. We should note that his productions of Lully and Charpentier in the past were authentic; anybody is entitled to a bad day. Let us hope that we get to see Les Boreades at the Met or State Opera here one day as Ram wanted us to see it, not a pretext to daub aesthetic graffiti which some coxcomb has designed to adorn a recently rescued masterpiece much as a dog defines its vaporous aegis by micturating on nearby trees.
If we can slander the excellent Rameau as a cur himself in this age we might at once make him acceptable.
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