Magazine article The Spectator

All for the Best

Magazine article The Spectator

All for the Best

Article excerpt

Anyone in search of a happy mythology, as Richard Strauss was, but in vain, in Die Liebe der Danae, needed to look no further than Rameau's masterpiece Les Boreades, given a magnificent musical performance at the Proms on Monday. It comes hotfoot from the Salzburg Festival, where it was of course fully-staged. In the Albert Hall it was semi-staged, a grave mistake. Spectacle was gone, of necessity. What remained were the singers on a bare stage, in evening dress, with a couple sitting up in the organ loft playing chess, and going through a painfully limited repertoire of gestures.

The plot concerns Alphise, who is only permitted to marry a Boread, but is in love and loved by Abaris, who is thought not to be one, but turns out to be Apollo's son by a nymph-daughter of Boreas. Alphise has two persistent suitors, both comic and threatening. There is very little action. So an oratorio format would seem justified, if you can't have the full works. What we had were mincings and flouncings, endlessly repeated; the chorus donned conical cardboard hats at one point, and tried to look engaged; there were a few lighting effects. Even the Prommers only tittered dutifully, and those few of us who were lucky enough to have one of the small number of programmes concentrated on the text, when there was one. A fair part of the music is dances, though less swampingly so than in some of Rameau's other operas; but at this performance there were no dancers, which made the repetitious gesturing of the singers more annoying.

None of that mattered, thanks to the transcendent merits of the singing and playing, under the baton of Simon Rattle, manifesting `the versatility that will be Berlin's gain', to quote the statement in the programme. Sitting almost as a member of the orchestra, I was able to see how expressive a conductor he is, his face miming every passing emotion, allowing himself gurgles and hisses, entreaties and admonitions. What matters is that Rameau's music, which can seem inventive but faceless, came across with a full charge of feeling, thanks to the loving but unfussy inflections of the phrasing. So much baroque performance is unphrased nowadays, and merely brimming with vitality. Rattle's is eloquent, in this work, above all of tenderness, with some moments that put you in mind of Gluck, a comparison I never thought I would make. The passage in Act IV, for instance, in which Polymnie, zephyrs, seasons, etc. …

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