In his last-but-one opera, Les Paladins, Rameau surely had his tongue in his cheek.
In his last-but-one opera, Les Paladins, Rameau surely had his tongue in his cheek. It's a strangely superficial mixture of song and dance numbers, in which some serious rivalry between two suitors is dressed up in magical transformations and buffoonery. An extravaganza, in fact, it has scarcely been revived since its premiere in 1760.
Now, in an innovative and lively co-production by Paris's Chatelet Theatre and the Barbican in London, the inventive dance and visual elements steal the show. Though they may occasionally distract, they in no way detract from the winning combination of William Christie, his period band Les Arts Florissants, and an ensemble who act expressively and sing compellingly. This is scarcely opera in its recognisable form though it may provide a clue as to the direction it will follow in the future.
There is no set, no props as we know them and little conventional interaction between the singers. Instead, José Montalvo has conceived a parallel element to the music in a series of backdrops combining cunning video projections - involving witty graphics and kaleidoscopic collages - and beguiling trompe-l'oeil effects with nimble and nifty stage business. Using the fables of La Fontaine as a kind of source reference (although this opera's origins actually lie not in one of his fables but in his story "Le petit chien qui secoue de l'argent et des pierreries"), Montalvo has devised an intriguing parade of animated images. These contain allusions to the opera plot and characterisation, and bring in contemporary and often tangential ideas, while paying droll homage to baroque idiom. Animals play a major role, from a mobile trail of little ponies to a positive safari of wild beasts, while castles disappear, clouds open and fantastic visions unfurl in a playful and richly detailed stage spectacle.
With dancers from his own company, Montalvo and his choreographic partner Dominique Hervieu put a huge range of dance styles from different cultures at the service of Rameau's music, to terrific effect. Hip-hop, break-dancing, street swing and acrobatics are all delivered with breath-taking skill and speed. Bodies shake in perfect time to the onomatopoeic effects in the orchestra or mime the elaborate vocal ornamentation, with sometimes even the tiniest gestures seamlessly synchronised with the split-level projections upstage.
Colourful, daring and audacious, Montalvo's concept is entered into whole-heartedly by the soloists and chorus, whose buoyant interpretation of the score belies the theatrical and physical hoops through which they cheerfully jump. And not even the fairy, Manto, could conjure such magical sounds as Christie coaxes from his excellent players.
'Les Paladins' (fully staged) is at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550)on 19, 21 and 22 October at 7.15pmReuse content