Opera: Les Fêtes d'Hébé; Academy of Ancient Music/Jordi Savall; Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset

By Toronyi-Lalic, Igor | The Spectator, April 15, 2017 | Go to article overview

Opera: Les Fêtes d'Hébé; Academy of Ancient Music/Jordi Savall; Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset


Toronyi-Lalic, Igor, The Spectator


The English weren't the first cowpat composers. Jean-Philippe Rameau raised the art of frolicking in the fields to such heights he filched pastoralism for the French. Rameau's mastery of landscape is not just a question of orchestral colour, though that's a large part of it -- those goaty oboes, lowing bassoons, cooing flutes transport you straight to the manger. It's that the very shape of his music, the softly curved lines that slide into burbling ornamentation, follows the contours of the rolling field and riverbank.

The glory of his opéra-ballet Les Fêtes d'Hébé (1739) is the final act's woodland romance that unfurls like a sunrise in the sexy Musette. We start the opera, however, with the sounds of the fêtes, the strings streaming down on us like confetti. What exactly did the director hear in these acts of exuberance -- musical counterparts to the rococo paintings of Fragonard -- to think the music suited an anaemic white set and characterisation communicated through coloured Lycra, comedy swimming caps and trading-floor semaphore?

Had Thomas Lebrun (director, set designer and choreographer) just told the stories -- simple little things set up to glorify the art forms that should whirl deliciously around them -- it might have shown the audience what a charming piece this is. One of Rameau's most immediate hits with the public, the work had 80 performances in its first year and several revivals.

The characters are familiar enough. Feisty bohemians, creative dropouts, sex-obsessed hippies fight it out with the fustily divine, semi-divine and regal using only, in the words of the work's subtitle, 'Les Talens Lyriques' -- their lyrical talents. In essence it's X Factor, ancient Greek-style, an egotistical talent contest spread over three acts, involving representatives from poetry, music and dance.

In this production, however, the only contest was a race to the bottom. Anything you can do, I can do worse, was the motto of the fumbled relay between eye, ear and limb. The director, meanwhile, seemed to be playing pass-the-parcel in reverse: wrapping and obscuring, wrapping and obscuring. It's a French favourite, this version of the game.

Were Lebrun Merce Cunningham, he might have got away with the abstractions. But his club-floor geometry, star jumps and swishy arms was pure Bez. He didn't even have the energy to follow through on his wilful non-literalism, projecting stock footage on to a large screen to indicate that we were in a Field, or Wood, when he ran out of ideas. …

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