Les Boreades, Palais Garnier, Paris

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The Independent Culture

There's an ill wind blustering around the Opéra de Paris's first-ever production of Jean-Philippe Rameau's last opera, Les Boréades. Thought to have been rehearsed in Paris in the 1760s, hampered by the burning down of the opera house, and changing tastes, and discarded perhaps because of the composer's death, it has taken nearly 250 years to reach the Paris stage, attracting endless controversy on the way.

There's an ill wind blustering around the Opéra de Paris's first-ever production of Jean-Philippe Rameau's last opera, Les Boréades. Thought to have been rehearsed in Paris in the 1760s, hampered by the burning down of the opera house, and changing tastes, and discarded perhaps because of the composer's death, it has taken nearly 250 years to reach the Paris stage, attracting endless controversy on the way.

Gallic mutterings and copyright disputes still surround Sir John Eliot Gardiner's performing edition, which finally made it to Paris in a new and stylised staging by Robert Carsen. But the opera blew a fuse on its opening night, plunging the audience into darkness twice, delaying the performance by more than an hour, and provoking a storm of criticism in Le Monde.

Freed from the difficulties experienced in Paris, the concert performance coming to London's Barbican will surely lack little in the way of theatricality, given William Christie's authoritative and illuminating direction, and the spirited playing from France's leading period-instrument ensemble, Les Arts Florissants. Shame, of course, about the absence of the field of flowers, the upturned umbrellas spilling autumnal leaves or sprinkling snow according to the season, and the conflict in costumes between the black-clad world of the north wind's Boreas and the airy lightness of the decidedly hippier realm of Apollo.

But even without Michael Levine's minimal set and props, there will be much pleasure to be had from Rameau's inventive score, undistracted by the energetic but peculiarly unidiomatic dance routines of Edouard Lock's guest company, La La La Human Steps.

The tale of the royal Alphise, beautifully sung by Barbara Bonney (revisiting the role that she sang for Simon Rattle at the Proms in 1999), destined to marry a descendant of Boreas, god of the harsh north wind, is nothing less than highly charged. Alphise loves neither Borileas or Calisis, persistent suitors both, characterfully depicted by Stéphane Degout and Toby Spence, respectively. She has been swept off her feet by Abaris, sung with eloquence by Paul Agnew. Their forbidden love seems hopeless until his divine origins are revealed and, with the help of Cupid's arrow, darkness turns to light, so that Boreas's dingy domain is suffused in glowing colour, literally and metaphorically.

It is Rameau who emerges as the real hero of Les Boréades, in bold rhythms and daring melodic lines, in the charming evocation of a clock in the "Gavotte pour les heures", the threatening tempest and torture scenes, and the uninhibited quality of the choruses. Most of all, however, in the sympathetic musical portrayal of each character, the elderly composer seems himself to have been touched by a magic arrow in his imaginative resourcefulness

William Christie conducts Les Arts Florissants in 'Les Boréades', in concert at the Barbican, London EC2, on 19 June (020-7638 8891)

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