DANCING WITH THE STARS
Baroque master Jean-philippe Rameau is having a bit of a modern moment, writes Matthew Westwood
BAROQUE music: we know about that. It’s Vivaldi’s effervescent Four Seasons, the solemnity of Bach’s passions, the exotic entertainments of Handel’s operas. Less well known — because only recently, in music history terms, back in vogue — is the French baroque. Not frivolous like those showoff Italian concertos, and more fun than all that heavy German piety, French music from the late 17th to mid-18th century is its own country: eccentric, theatrical and, naturellement, stylish.
One of my favourite pieces from this period is a harpsichord solo by Francois Couperin called L’Amphibie (the French love giving exotic titles to abstract music). Apparently it has nothing to do with amphibious creatures, but I like to imagine a frog in splendid costume and perhaps a powdered wig, arriving in his carriage at Versailles and going to a dance: such are the long leggy steps and little skips of Couperin’s eccentric passecaille.
That’s the thing about French music: it’s all about dancing frogs. Don’t forget Louis XIV was not only the Sun King, he was the Dancing King. With his favourite composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis made dancing the royal pastime, and dance was an essential part of the court entertainment, the opera. Every act of a French opera — and these were often five-act affairs — had a ballet attached.
Sydney Dance Company, in its first collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, is making a full-length dance work with music from the French baroque, specifically that of Jean-Philippe Rameau, sometimes called the greatest ballet composer of all. Their Project Rameau opens in Sydney later this month (it tours to Brisbane and Canberra next year). Then there’s a second helping of Rameau in December, when Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera does his tragedie en musique, Castor et Pollux.
Review has dropped into Sydney Dance Company’s wharf studios to watch the preparations for Project Rameau. On this sunny spring afternoon, the dancers are rehearsing to recordings — the ACO players will join them at a later date — and baroque beats are pumping from the sound system. The playlist is mostly Rameau, but Vivaldi and Bach get a look-in, too.
Rafael Bonachela, SDC artistic director, calls the dancers on to the floor for a run-though of Tambourins. No elegant minuet, this is vigorous, foot-stamping music. The eight dancers in the piece — arranged into four couples — slap their thighs and strike attitudes that are a bit like voguing.
Bonachela has not attempted to re-create baroque dance styles but has invented a contemporary choreographic response to the music. He admits he has become a bit obsessed with the sprung rhythms and glittering surface details. ‘‘ Every time I listen to it, there’s one more accent that I’ve missed,’’ he says.
On the musical side, Graham Sadler, a British expert on Rameau — he is emeritus professor of historical musicology at the University of Hull — has supplied Richard Tognetti and the ACO with historically correct editions of the scores.
He explains Rameau in his operas used familiar dance forms of the day, such as the minuet, bourree and gavotte. The piece the dancers have just been rehearsing — Tambourins, from the opera Dardanus — is based on exuberant Provencal music that featured a pipe instrument and the tambourin, a cylindrical drum. ‘‘ A lot of pieces have this jaunty character, derived from that pipe and drum,’’ Sadler says. ‘‘ The bass is often repeated on the same note, as if imitating the beat of a drum. It’s a very lively and often wild-sounding dance.’’
Rameau had the misfortune to be the first composer to have the term baroque applied to his music. After the premiere of his opera Hippolyte et Aricie, an anonymous correspondent in Mercure de France complained that the music was ‘‘ du barocque’’: incoherent, ugly, all over the shop.
With hindsight, Rameau would be regarded as the most inventive composer of his day. He used instruments imaginatively, employing bassoons and horns not only for solos but to enrich the orchestral texture. He was a forward thinker on harmony, too, using dissonance and harmonic shadings to give emotional life to his musical characters.
He was born in Dijon in 1683, and had a career as an organist and music theorist before writing Hippolyte, his first opera, at the age of 50. During the next 30 years, 24 of his stage works were premiered, among them tragedies en musique Castor et Pollux and Dardanus; the opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes; and comedieslyriques Platee and Les Paladins.
Rameau encountered a lot of opposition. Conservatives accused him of destroying the traditions of French opera laid down by his predecessor Lully. Then, late in his career, Rameau was caught up in an ideological battle between fans of the new Italian comic style (Pergolesi’s opera La Serva Padrona) and those connoisseurs of courtly French opera that Rameau was now seen to represent. The culture war of the 1750s was known as the Querelle des Bouffons, the quarrel of buffoons.
‘‘ It was a huge debate, a fundamental change in French thinking about music,’’ Sadler says, ‘‘ partly because intellectuals like Rousseau had hijacked it as a way of attacking the government for not allowing freedom of speech.’’ Poor old Rameau, he adds, ‘‘ had an awful lot to contend with in his lifetime’’.
Castor et Pollux, when Rameau revised it in 1754, was the opera that ended the querelle. This is the version that Pinchgut Opera will present in Sydney in December. The story concerns a love triangle from classical mythology: twin brothers Castor and Pollux, one mortal (Castor) and the other immortal.
Pollux and beautiful Telaire are betrothed, but Castor and Telaire are actually in love. When Castor is killed in a jealous-lover intrigue, the scene of his funeral gives occasion for one of the most exquisite arias in the French baroque, Telaire’s Tristes apprets, pales flambeaux.
Pollux descends to the underworld
to recover his lost brother, but Castor is allowed back on earth for one day only. The gods appear and Castor and Pollux, both now immortal, rise to the heavens as the constellation Gemini.
In the Pinchgut cast are American high tenor Jeffrey Thompson as Castor (he has sung haute-contre roles with groups including Les Arts Florissants) and New Zealand bassbaritone Hadleigh Adams as Pollux. Antony Walker will conduct the period-instrument orchestra.
Pinchgut’s co-artistic director Erin Helyard has studied the performance styles of the French baroque, with its declamatory way of singing. Composers were particular about setting words to music in a style befitting the mythological personages who are the subject of these operas. The verse form was the Alexandrine and in Castor et Pollux, Helyard says, Rameau frequently changes time signatures to ensure the metrical stress falls at the right place in the music.
A peculiarity of French baroque singing is the ornamentation, such as the tremblement or trill, very different from the Italian variety. Another is the porte de voix, in which the singer swoops up or down to a resting note. These things were not just decorative but had expressive meaning. ‘‘ To an educated Frenchman, which was the bulk of this audience — they go to salons, they read poetry and discuss it — all of these trills mean something,’’ Helyard says. ‘‘ It’s to impart a linguistic element the French always wanted . . . The Italians didn’t need that because the Italian language functions differently.’’
Baroque opera, back in the day, was a lavish affair that used new theatre technology — lighting and stage machinery — to spectacular effect. These included special effects called les merveilleux, which accompanied supernatural happenings. Not for nothing does Helyard refer to Avatar as a point of comparison: the production design in French opera was as expensive and way out as that of James Cameron’s sci-fi movie.
Castor et Pollux and Project Rameau will not necessarily be on that scale, but the minimalist stage designs in both productions will evoke period style through geometry. Castor et Pollux, to be directed by Kate Gaul, will take place under a geodesic dome, representing the heavenly sphere. Project Rameau, with the dancers in chic modern costumes, will be on a stage that suggests the receding perspectives of baroque architecture. The ACO players will be on a platform at the back of the stage.
‘‘ The music is all so rich and elegant and complex that we are going to go simple,’’ Bonachela says. ‘‘ It’s about the dance and the bodies. It will not reference Dangerous Liaisons or anything.’’ Readers may be tempted to seek out more of this music. A good place to start is the CD Une Symphonie Imaginaire: a compilation of instrumental music by Rameau, performed by Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre. It includes some of the music to be used in Project Rameau.
The more adventurous may try complete operas such as Les Boreades or the comic opera Platee, about a froglike nymph who is cruelly tricked by the gods. There are some beautiful modern productions of these operas on DVD.
For lovers of baroque music, the French style offers a beguiling departure from the now more familiar works of Handel, Monteverdi and Vivaldi. It is music so charming that one is tempted to explore widely, hopping from one exquisite lilypad to the next.
Sydney Dance Company dancers rehearse for