Noted for their wacky venues for opera in town, the City of Birmingham Touring Opera has surpassed itself in placing its latest production in the Mayfair Suite in the Bull Ring. Downstairs were sofas and soft furnishings, upstairs, in a burnt- out Sixties disco, was Les Boreades.
The main problem with this astonishing place is its acoustic. Sets and orchestra fit comfortably into the space, but consonants seem to vanish into thin air. The odd moment of intelligibility was evidence enough that Amanda Holden's translation was both excellent and apposite, but in an age when diction seems to be one of the lesser arts, far too much was lost for the diligent listener.
In a work in which the issues were less clear cut, this would have been a problem. The beauty of Rameau's last complete opera, however, is its clarity of design. Dance and plot come together to present a tale that is the paradigm of enlightenment with a beauty and simplicity that looks forward to Mozart's The Magic Flute. Even better, so does the orchestration. Rameau in the 1760s had a sense of colour of which Berlioz could be proud, notably in the electrifying horn-calls of the first scene. CBTO's old-instrument band, under Simon Halsey, had more than its fair share of blips and squeaks on the first night. There were moments of grandeur, not least from the bassoons, but there was a lack of homogeneity and decision. Much of the latter resulted from the band being placed above the singers; even with the aid of cameras and television, there is little substitute for the pit.
Fielding an old-instrument band might have made more sense if all of the soloists had been happier with Rameau's idiom. All were singers of quality, but hardly any seemed at home with baroque ornament or rhetoric. The result was a damaging disjunction between instrumental sound and vocal effort; both, in their way, were valid, but on the night they simply did not suit each other. This was a pity, since Colin McKerracher's Abaris developed strongly in character throughout. Jonathan Best was resonant and commanding as both Adamas and Boree, and Penelope Randall-Davis was worryingly convincing as a bride. The list of honour could include the entire cast, but at bottom neither singers nor accompaniment seemed to serve each other to best effect.
And then there is the production. Doubtless many will be worried by its lack of inhibition, but then presenting baroque opera to a twentieth-century audience is a knotty problem. Opera, as we all know, is expensive, and baroque opera, with all its paraphernalia of elaborate sets and dance, can be even more so. In taming Les Boreades for the scale favoured by the CBTO, Graham Vick homed in on the symbolic aspects of a work rich in innuendo. At times his approach verged on being very silly indeed: doubtless many a fantasy was served by the thought of Alphise being tickled to death by a male chorus enveloped in sleeping bags. Silly, perhaps, but never ignorant.
Vick's gestures, articulated by energetic choreography - Ron Howell - were larger and coarser than the music could safely accommodate. Even so, the scale of imagination and, in the end, entertainment value paralleled the consistency of Rameau's vision despite travelling light years away from anything that would have been familiar to the composer. Perhaps, in the end, the joke is on all of us: producer, performer and listener. Notwithstanding the music drama of the great Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Les Boreades is the ultimate glory of French baroque opera, and, whatever happens to it, the light shines through.
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