Baroque mas­ter Jean-philippe Rameau is hav­ing a bit of a mod­ern mo­ment, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music - Project Rameau,

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.

Project Rameau

Sydney Dance Com­pany dancers re­hearse for

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