L'Opéra de Bordeaux, 2015
Raphaël Pichon, Michel Fau, Karina Gauvin, Gaëlle Arquez, Reinoud van Mechelen, Florian Sempey, Nahuel di Pierro, Katherine Watson, Etienne Bazola, Virgile Ancely, Guillaume Gutiérrez
Culturebox - 22 April 2015
You could criticise Jean-Philippe Rameau's Dardanus - and indeed most of the composer's tragédie-lyriques - as being a little too stiff, formal and serious, the work straight-jacketed by precise rules and conventions that Rameau and his predecessor Lully before him helped establish. You could however admire Dardanus for the very same reasons, for its ability to fit such beautiful music, song and dance into a very rigid format, making it a wonderfully entertaining spectacle.
And there's the key to how you make Dardanus, composed in 1739 and scarcely heard of again until the present day, work today for a modern audience. It's by not playing it with stiff, rigid formality, but finding a natural warmth in the beauty of the composition, the structure and the melody. It's also about presenting the work with some respect for its intention to entertain, with plenty of colour and spectacle.
Bordeaux have a good recent history with Rameau. Their modernisation of Les Indes Galantes last year (for the 250th anniversary of the death of Rameau) was an absolute marvel, updating the work certainly way beyond its original settings but completely respecting the intentions and the spirit of the opéra-ballet with all its wonderful verve, energy and inventiveness. A classical drama in the tragédie-lyrique vein, Dardanus is a different prospect but, Michel Fau's direction for the Bordeaux stage, in a co-production with Versailles, never forgets the primary purpose and delivers a colourful drama that is matched by the warmth of Raphaël Pichon's conducting of his Pygmalion ensemble.
As it adheres very much to a classic narrative, the primary purpose of Dardanus is not, clearly, to present any kind of credible or coherent drama, but to present a drama in music. The plot involves a ruler, King Teucer, who has plans for his daughter Princess Iphise's marriage to King Anténor. Iphise doesn't want to marry Anténor, but is troubled that her affections seem to be swaying her towards tender feelings for Teucer's enemy Dardanus. Dardanus, Anténor and Iphise all venture into the magic kingdom of Isménor, where the true intentions of each are brought into the open and made known to each other, causing a lot of confusion and trouble for all.
Opening with the obligatory Prologue featuring Vénus and Amour ('Triomphe, tendre amour"), Dardanus then is five acts of fairly standard plotting with sentiments of forbidden love and conflict leading to a rather contrived conclusion. For some not entirely convincing reason, other than perhaps to provide the opera with a necessary bit of merveilleux stage spectacle at the necessary point, Neptune sends a sea monster to attack Teucer. Dardanus saves the King's champion Anténor from bring devoured by the sea monster, and thereby wins the right to marry Iphise. Rameau pads all this out with lots of dancing and a structure that seems to run on an aria-ballet-chorus-ballet-recitative-ballet-aria loop. Dardanus has the potential to be very dry indeed with all these interruptions to the dramatic flow.
Rameau's music however is much too good to let it be drowned in a dull academic presentation. There is a sense of establishing beauty and order on the world in the music itself - learning to love instead of hate - and Raphaël Pichon finds the beautiful warmth in Rameau's writing that underlines such sentiments, as much in the interplay of the instruments as in their individual qualities. There are moments of sheer wonder here, even in those little side events, such as in the little pastorale 'Paix favorable, paix adorable' which takes the form of a chorus, turning into a ballet and then into a duet which has all the joyous quality of a Handel oratorio.
There's no room for extravagant arias in French tragédie-lyrique, and reportedly there wasn't any particular need for clarity of diction, but the libretto is beautifully articulated here by some beautiful and appropriately pitched voices. Florian Sempey carried the honours as Anténor, his lyrical baritone carrying the kind of warmth that was complementary to the production. In his actions as well as his voice, there was a genuine sensitivity that made Anténor a little more sympathetic and not just a caricature villain,. He's clearly devastated that Iphise doesn't love him, valiantly entering into battle with the sea monster to prove his worth. Sempey's voice holds firm and lyrical throughout.
Gaëlle Arquez complements him well as Iphise, her voice bright, her emotional conflicts expressed purposefully, never faltering. The figure of Dardanus is relatively bland by comparison, and characterised as such by Reinoud van Mechelen's light but sweet tenor. Although limited to only a few scenes, Karina Gauvin is the kind of singer you want to impress when Vénus makes an appearance, and she fulfils that role well, but it's Katherine Watson taking up the bit-part roles of Amore, a Shepherdess, Bellone and a Dream, who gets to feature in some of Rameau's most beautiful little incidental arrangements, and she makes a fine impression here.