Jean-Philippe Rameau: Les Boréades
Anna Maria Panzarella (Alphise), Paul Agnew (Abaris), Jaël Azzaretti (Sémire), Hanna Bayodi (A nymph/Polymnie), Toby Spence (Calisis), Lauren Naouri (Boréas), Stéphane Degout (Borilée), Nicolas Rivenq (Adamas/Apollon), Th´o Joulia Demory (L'Amour), Shadi Torbey (Priest of Apollon)
William Christie (conductor)
Les Arts Florissants
Last year, London got a concert version of Les Arts Florissants' Ulisse while mainland Europe and Brooklyn got the full Monteverdi. The concert performance was still one of the opera highlights of the year: the "semi-staging" in the Barbican Theatre preserved the powerfully human action, which doesn't need decor to work. This year, Les Art Florissant's concert performance of Rameau's Les Boréades in the Barbican Hall looked riskier. In principle, Rameau's essentially cosmological work should never be deprived of its theatrical context, which provides a concrete frame for the drama's abstractions, as well as something to watch and clarify during the symbolic dance music. In practice, the music in itself is so engaging, especially in the exuberant, expressive performance of Les Arts Flo, that if it's a choice between Rameau unstaged and no Rameau, unstaged is fine, thank you. Rameau's operas even seem to have an affinity with Handel's near-contemporary strange, great late oratorios in the way the music and text create a theatre of the imagination from which any concrete performance inevitably falls short.
It may be coincidence, but Les Boréades, like Zoroastre, is further tied to the theatre by its resemblance to the Magic flute without the jokes. A young couple are torn apart because she (Alphise, the queen of Bactria) is obliged to marry a descendant of Boreas, while he (Abaris) is of unknown origin, but a servant of Apollo, who may or may not be identical to Cupid. Boreas and his heirs, represented by Alphise's sinister suitors Calisis and Borilée, embody lust and violence. After trying to charm her, they eventually abduct her to Boreas's cave of the winds and torture her. Alphise and Abaris represent true love, which triumphs as Abaris learns to take control of his life, using a magic arrow, originally given to Alphise by Cupid, and by her to him, to subdue the winds. As in the Magic flute, Alphise's mature steadfastness is important only because it enables Abaris to grow up. The allegory seems anodyne, but it implicitly undermines the concept of dynastic rule -- it is a happy accident that Abaris turns out to be a Boread without knowing it -- and while the vivid musical evocation of storms and earthquakes is a technical tour de force, it is also a violent attack on violence. While the earth swallows up the Queen of Night just because it's a good effect, the storms of Les Boréades embody the implicit sexual and personal violence of arbitrary government.
If Les Boréades wasn't the overwhelming success that Ulisse was at the Barbican, it was still pretty impressive. William Christie, as always, directed the orchestra and choir with minimal intervention and complete control, letting every player, even the percussionist, find the voice in music that on paper looks rigorously schematic. In fact, the percussionist Marie-Ange Petit deserves a name check purely for letting you forget that someone was making the sounds of the wind.
The singers, always subordinate to the big thematic picture, had less chance to shine individually, but the young lovers were often moving. Anna Maria Panzarella as Alphise was lovely but perhaps a bit measured, although her character isn't one who gets to let rip. Paul Agnew as Abaris emerged from blandness as the action progressed and was glorious in his later arias. The suitors weren't quite threatening enough, and Laurent Naouri's last-act cameo as Boréas was a welcome bit of theatricality.