It’s the Christmas holiday: a chance to escape from London and retreat to the countryside: time for family, log fires, games of charades, and hopefully a chance to work on my overdue posts. This seemed a good place to start. Conceived as a tribute to the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) , this was my first introduction to Baroque ballet, which played such a crucial role in early operas and entertainments. It was a real feast for the eyes – and even more rewarding because I was able to see yet another Baroque legend live on stage: the doyen of French early music, William Christie himself.
As I delve into the wonderful world of early opera, Christie’s name keeps cropping up over and over again: he has been responsible for some of the most engaging, sublime and daring productions I’ve seen so far on DVD and I haven’t even made a dent in his discography. He usually performs with Les Arts Florissants, an ensemble he founded in 1979, through which he’s a particular champion of French 17th and 18th-century composers. This concert at the Barbican united two little-known opera-ballets by Rameau.
As you’ll remember, my first encounter with the French Baroque was via Charpentier (and Molière’s Le malade imaginaire) at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse a few weeks ago: I’d never heard any Rameau before, much to the horror of the gentleman who was sitting next to me. Part of the reason I went to the concert, of course, was to address that lack; but I was also keen to see the kind of court entertainment that would have been performed at Fontainebleau in the mid-18th century.
It’s clear that French court ballet has a very distinctive spirit; and the two pieces performed here, Daphnis et Eglé and La naissance d’Osiris, both embodied that charming, soufflé-light quality. The first of the two pieces was an unashamed love story. Daphnis and Eglé must be two of the least self-aware people in history, although the programme makes much of the universality of their plight: ‘who doesn’t know someone who has mistaken love for friendship?’
The young shepherd (Reinoud Van Mechelen) and shepherdess (Élodie Fonnard) live in a bucolic community which shuns the tumults of romantic love and cherishes platonic friendship as the only route to peace and happiness. They come to the temple of the God of Friendship to strengthen the bonds of their affection by vows, but are shocked when a sudden thunderstorm shows the god’s displeasure with them. They are baffled by his censure: haven’t they shown the firmest of friendships to one another? But the god announces that they have failed to worship him properly. There is much confusion among the shepherds, but fortunately Cupid pops up to announce that all is well: Daphnis and Eglé do not feel friendship for one another but romantic love. Cue much merriment, dancing and flourishing of ribbons as everyone celebrates this marvellous revelation.
La naissance d’Osiris has an even flimsier excuse for a plot. A group of shepherds and shepherdesses spend their days preoccupied with their flirtations and love affairs, but are terrified by a massive thunderstorm which augurs the presence of the gods. Jupiter duly appears to announce that this is a propitious time: he has sent down Cupid to live among the shepherds and they are to be blessed with the auspicious birth of the god Osiris. Again, there is much exuberant dancing.
Rather neatly, this production brought the two opera-ballets together into a consistent narrative. They were written at different times for different purposes, but here the cast become a company of itinerant players who set up a little stage in the first half to tell the story of Daphnis et Eglé. They perform against a curtained backdrop; the thunderstorm is charmingly evoked by a wooden spiked wheel being rolled across the stage, and by a metal sheet; Cupid is one of the girls who has laughingly hooked panniers over her shoulders to serve as wings; while the High Priest of the god of friendship is the company’s manager (Arnaud Richard), dressed in a long cloak and hat trimmed with straw.
However, the actors playing Daphnis and Eglé find fantasy turning into reality and, when we meet the company again after the interval, Eglé is heavily pregnant and her child is the long awaited baby whose birth is to herald the new reign of peace. Now divinity too steps off the stage: Jupiter’s arrival is heralded by a ‘real’ storm in which the orchestra conjures up a sense of thunder and lightning. Cupid is no longer a girl play-acting, but a lithe, beautiful boy in loose white trousers and unbuttoned shirt, whose movements are so slow and controlled as to accentuate every detail of the graceful choreography. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about choreography to appreciate Françoise Denieau’s designs to the full, but the dancers looked almost weightless and every movement, even the simplest, was made graceful with the lyrical curve of an arm or a wrist. This was Baroque gesture (as I’ve seen in Italian operas) transformed into courtly elegance.
Denieau added two little set-pieces of dance: in the first half there was a little pantomime showing how love liberates the heart. Two dancers came through the mock-stage curtains to show that a life without love is wooden and clunky – they danced heavily, like automatons – and then, as their eyes met and their arms and hands intertwined, their dancing gradually become looser and more natural, more spontaneous and free. In the second part there was a delightful country dance to finish, which was probably the only moment these effervescent little fantasies came close to pastoral reality.
As you know by now, the costumes always catch my eye, and this production was sumptuous in that respect. Alain Blanchot’s designs were exquisite. Such shepherds as these were never seen beyond Arcadia: they’d stepped out of a dream by Boucher or Fragonard. Pleated white blouses gave way to loose, billowing sleeves; vests and skirts were in pastel shades of green or pink or blue with the odd shot of darker damson and sometimes a flash of chintz. The coats were in velvets or rich embroidered fabrics. Bodices were often tied over just one shoulder and cinched in at the waist, just enough to give the silhouette of a Rococo mignonne without hindering freedom of movement. The detailing was gorgeous: bows and ribbons and garlands of flowers, with both men and women in shoes and stockings. To see such costumes outside the frame of a painting was a true delight although, like everything else, it was very clear that this was the courtly fantasy of peasant dress.
And that’s the overriding impression of the whole. In the pre-performance talk William Christie referred to the pieces as ‘suspended moments of grace’ in which nothing really happens; and that’s very true. They’re delightful, they’re charming, they’re extremely elegant, but they are unapologetically light. These aren’t opera-ballets with pretensions: they’re amuse-bouches for a spoiled aristocracy playing at pastoral innocence while the very foundations of their world begin to crack. They have a sorbet spirit to them: tantalisingly light and delicate but fundamentally insubstantial: things of candyfloss or spun sugar, to delight the eyes and ear for an evening. Now, this isn’t to take away from the sublime elegance of the performances at the Barbican. Nor is it a criticism in any way. It is in fact a compliment: Rameau’s job was to enchant, flatter and divert and he created something which feels like the colourful, charming aftermath of a dream.