Every time I listen to French baroque anything, I end up with the “forêts paisibles” number from Les Indes Galantes stuck in my head for at least several hours. This seems to be a law of the universe of a level of immutability comparable to, say, gravity, or the way in rural areas of the US whenever more than two people reach a 3- or 4-way stop at the same time everyone either panics and freezes, hoping that the other cars will go away or, alternately, barrels ahead as if the shame of not knowing what to do in such an extraordinary situation is best carried off with a roar of unmuffled engine and great swinging of mudflaps, especially if you drive a really big truck. The point is, as an outcome it is extremely predictable and attempting to avoid it is probably a fool’s game.
So I steeled myself for the inevitable, and watched this really charming performance of Les Paladins. (And I am reaping what I have sown. “Jamaaaaais un vain désir ne trouble ici nos coeurs. . . “) This is one of those operas has relatively little of what you’d call plot. The idea is simple. Young and pretty Argie is being held captive by her old ugly guardian Anselme, who plans to marry her (sort of like Rosina in The Barber of Seville). But she loves the handsome young Atis. Anselme is away, and Argie and her maid/friend Nérine are being watched by Orcan, who is a sort of Gallic Osmin. Atis shows up, and he and Argie are about to escape when Anselme comes back; there is some trouble for a while, but fortunately Atis has a magic friend named Manto who leads Anselme into an enchanted garden and tricks Anselme into declaring love for him, and so Argie can tell him he’s a hypocrite and clearly not in love with her – and so Anselme lets the young lovers get married. The plot is not by any means a deep psychological drama; it’s an excuse for some pretty music and a lot of dancing. Love is great! Being locked up sucks! Let’s sing about gardens and breezes! And so on.
The production is based around projections on the rear of the stage. Against a bright blue sky we see romping animals, romping people, figures in eighteenth century dress bouncing on clouds, slightly trippy images of the gardens of Versailles, and so on. Often the dancing happening on stage is doubled or commented on by the projections; the dancers, chorus and soloists are all dressed in bright cheerful colors, and the whole thing is really very fun to watch.
It’s also fun to listen to.
Here is Argie’s Act II ‘ariette,’ “Je vole, Amour, où tu m’appelles”:
I really like Stephanie d’Oustrac’s voice – she’s got the lightness and agility that the music requires, but there’s also a really nice solid quality to the sound. (And she can certainly wear those red shorts like a champ!) Topi Lehtipuu as Atis is easy on both the eyes and the ears, which I suppose is probably part of the idea, and Sandrine Piau, as the Blondchen-like Nérine, is both funny and pleasant to hear. And with so much dancing, it’s not a surprise that the singers get to bust a move or two as well – and given that there are plenty of opera singers who are, I suspect, not among nature’s great dancers, it’s all the more impressive that this group is clearly up to the challenge.
I didn’t find myself getting deeply sucked in to the music itself. Partly it’s because the thing is so relentlessly visual – not in a bad way; the dancing, after all, is half the appeal of this – and partly because I think I’m so used to my usual Handel/Mozart/Verdi/Strauss that with Rameau, the divisions in the music aren’t in the places I expect. Or, given the way that the thing swaps back between soloists/chorus/dancing so frequently, my brain is listening for little cues and things that aren’t there, because this is a different sort of opera. I think I’d have to hear a lot more of this kind of thing to feel as if I really had a handle on it. But it’s certainly entertaining.