Les Paladins, Barbican Theatre, London <br></br> La forza del destino, Royal Opera House, London <br></br> Syncopation, National Opera Studio, London

Rameau goes digital. And it works
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Declared "unbearably dull" at its 1760 premiere, Les Paladins was Rameau's least successful opera. The score, though exquisitely orchestrated, is derivative of the Grand Motets; the libretto a corruption of La Fontaine. But though this daffy double love triangle lacks the dynamism of Les Boréades and the pathos of Platée, its chain of supernatural transformations is tailor-made for the extraordinary imaginations of choreographers José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu.

With due respect to Marc Minkowski, conductor William Christie is probably the only man in the world who could persuade the Barbican and the Théâtre du Châtelet to commission a lavish production of an obscure comédie lyrique from two directors with no previous operatic experience. I'm glad he did. Montalvo and Hervieu's production is not the first to use video, but no one has explored the possibilities of digital imagery with such gleeful extravagance or made technology and live movement so interdependent. In Les Paladins, the 25 dancers of the Centre Choréographique National de Créteil et du Val de Marne and Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu are in constant play with their digitalised doubles: duetting with mirror images of themselves and their on-stage partners, playing hide-and-seek in the priapic topiary of a formal garden, trampolining in counterpoint to their cloud- jumping Fragonard alter egos, tumbling and break-dancing, pirouetting on point and shaking their asses, slapsticking, somersaulting, and high-fiving the fantastical menagerie of magical creatures on the screens behind them.

Their precision is breathtaking. Ballerinas become butterflies. Snakes' heads are superimposed on those of the singers. Horses dance, dogs pant, lions roll over to have their tummies rubbed. Métro trains thunder past in contrary motion. Peacocks fan their tail-feathers. Fauns dart out from 18th-century engravings. Figures beckon from between the vast, disinterested thighs of Classical statuary. Lovers sing under arches of heart-shaped balloons. Fools trail carousels of helium-pumped ponies. Flamingos strut. Tigers prowl. Singers stomp and shuffle in high heels and hot-pants. Tiny rabbits are coaxed out of tiny top hats, growing larger and larger to the sound of Rameau's insistent manifesto of pleasure, and multiply as rabbits do until their twitching noses fill the screens in a quivering advertisement for what nature does best.

Though compromises have been made to secure a cast who can move as well as they sing, Topi Lehtipuu (Atis), Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Argie), Danielle de Niese (Nérine), João Fernandes (Orcan), François Piolino (Manto), and René Schirrer (Anselme) give vivacious performances of their roles. Lehtipuu took time to warm up but blazed his way through "Lance, Amour!" In the pit and, during Act III's quasi-Oriental musette, out of it, Les Arts Florissants played with customary panache. My only regret was that the strings and wind could not be raised to the same height as Christie's superb continuo section to enable greater clarity. Yes, Les Paladins is far from Rameau's strongest work. Yes, the production is wide-eyed and childlike. But what an achievement. A delirious confection of music, movement and technology that translates the excess of French Baroque theatre to the digital age. Deus ex machina indeed.

The sorry spat between Covent Garden and La Scala Milan reached its denouement last weekend at the opening night of the now uncredited 1999 production of La forza del destino. Overture excepted, which was played with ferocious energy under Antonio Pappano, it was a dismal affair, during which I vacillated between feeling guilty about casting aspersions on Marcelo Alvarez's acting ability (compared to Salvatore Licitra, Alvarez is a veritable Al Pacino), and feeling frustrated that I couldn't boo like a La Scala regular, flounce off in my fur coat, and go and eat some ossobuco instead.

The best I can say about Forza is that it feels authentically awful - by which I mean that it is awful in the traditional grand opera sense rather than awful in a crassly conceptual fashion. One could only guess which of the vulgar wood-effect sets caused Riccardo Muti's walkout. Or which of the vulgar wood-effect performances. I've heard worse singing than Licitra's Alvaro. But not for £175, which would pay for quite a lot of ossobuco, I think. Violeta Urmana (Leonora), by contrast, was in glorious voice, if a little sturdy on the eye, as was Ferruccio Furlanetto as Padre Guardino. Briefly enlivened by a battle that saw the chorus play grandmother's footsteps to the phut-phut-whizz of miniature fireworks, I was able to see the funny side of the ineffectual swordfight between Licitra and the bawling Ambrogio Maestri (Carlo). The eye-popping tastelessness of the Act III ballet defies description.

No sets for Syncopation's debut performance in the National Opera Studio. Just four fine singers, their excellent accompanist, and some music that is burning to be heard. Pianist Allyson Devenish's stylishly presented survey of songs by black composers from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to Clement Ishmael threw light on a tradition of art music that is barely known about in this country; introducing the audience to 20th-century African-American composers such as Margaret Bonds, Florence B Price, and Harrison Leslie Adams, who is still living and composing in Cleveland, Ohio.

If Coleridge-Taylor's decorous chamber opera The Dream Lovers raised an inevitable smile (and any quartet with the lines "You may go from bleak Alaska to the shores of Madagascar, you will find some funny men!" is fine by me), Syncopation's selection of arias from Adams's anti-slavery opera Blake, was a blunt reminder of the bloody heritage behind so much of this music. Angela Caesar's heartrending account of Miranda's Prayer, Wills Morgan's impassioned reading of Blake's Monologue, Keel Watson's terrifying delivery of their owner's aria Our losses will be great, and Andee-Louise Hypolite's spitting incarnation of fellow slave-owner Isabella were all remarkable for their signal lack of sentimentality. A stunning debut from an exciting group of musicians.

'La forza del destino': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), to 6 November

a.picard@independent.co.uk

Comments