French Baroque again! I am feeding my obsession. Marin Marais, with Couperin, Rameau and Lully, was one of the main composers of this period. His Alcyone (or Alcione, they weren’t so obsessed with spelling in those days as we are now) is important in the history of opera, mainly because it features the first orchestral description of a storm. Marais’ orchestration of the tempest at sea became enormously famous, and it shaped every single storm in the operas to come, all the way to Verdi’s Otello. Here it is:
The opera itself is not often performed, hence the trip of yours truly all the way to Paris to see it. The Opéra Comique has been under renovation for almost 2 years, and it reopened for this opera. It is a magnificent theater, small, a little gem, here are some pictures of the venue. I advise you to go for a visit if you are in Paris.
The plot is based on a mythological story: Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus (god of the winds), and Ceix, king of Trachine, are madly in love. Pelée, a very close friends of Ceix, is also in love with Alcyone himself and feeling guilty about it, while a truly bad guy, the magician Phorbas, who is mad at Ceix for some reason I didn’t understand, plots against Ceix and tries to help Pelée. During the wedding of Alcyone and Ceix, Phorbas summons all sorts of demons from hell to disrupt the ceremony, and convince the bride and groom that the gods oppose their marriage. He then suggests to Ceix to go by ship to the temple of Apollo, to beg him to intercede for them. Ceix dies at sea during a shipwreck, Alcyone kills herself from grief, and in the end Neptune, the god of the sea, decides to bring them back to life and give them immortality.
The production has been praised by all, but I have to say it left me a bit cold. Usual nonsensical modern clothes, everybody’s barefoot, non-existent sets, lots of acrobats and dancers. Now, in baroque opera you can’t avoid dancing, and I understand that. The problem is that most of the dancing I found boring and unrelated to anything else, less than ever to the music. Maybe it’s me, I really don’t understand dance. The acrobats, however, were extremely entertaining. The main theme throughout the opera was the sea: always alluded to, by “waves” made with ropes, or with sailors/acrobats swinging from the ceiling, or climbing poles; everything seemed to build up to the tempest, which was, in fact, the peak of the performance.
In the story, the tempest occurs in a dream, Alcyone’s dream, where she sees the fate of her beloved. So, the whole scene was behind curtains/sails, acted out by shadows, while Alcyone was asleep on the front of the stage. The chorus of the sailors, screaming for their lives, was singing out of the stage boxes. Brilliant!
The orchestra Les Concert des Nations was conducted by Jordi Savall. They are French Baroque specialists, and their performance was absolutely amazing. Some of my tweeps find Savall a bit boring, and I can sort of understand that: the search for formal perfection is palpable, and it can come across as a cold, heartless interpretation. For me, personally, though, the strict adherence to the baroque paradigms brings on the magic; and the detachment (almost aloofness) that this perfection conveys adds, instead of subtracting from the emotional involvement. But I am a Baroque freak, as everybody knows.
Alcyone was the young Lea Desandre, only 24 years old, and she has already performed with William Christie, Emmanuelle Haïm, Paul Agnew and Jordi Savall!! Her voice is truly beautiful, perfect technique and the right style. She may lack a bit of depth in the central register, but of course she’ll grow into it. The most amazing feature is how much she owns the role, how she moves on stage, and her general acting ability. It’s really remarkable, in such a young performer. Someone to follow.
Her husband Ceix was one of my pets: Cyril Auvity! He’s a true haute-contre, with a lyrical, pure voice, wonderful high notes, and an easy, natural delivery. His command of the French style is perfect, he is so at ease in this music. It’s such a pleasure just to watch him approach a work of this size and importance like a walk in the park. I adore him, I would listen to him all day long.
Marc Mauillon, baritone, was Pelée, Ceix’ treacherous friend. His voice has a very peculiar color, very metallic, with an amazing projection, but a bit piercing, at times. Maybe he would sound better in a bigger theater.
The role of the evil magician, Phorbas, was sung by bass Lisandro Abadie. He has a great part, which gave him lots of chances to show his singing abilities. I really liked him. Baritone Antonio Abete as Neptune and Tmole, was not as convincing. His voice is beautiful, but a bit out of control at times. Also, the style was not exactly on point, the vibrato a bit too much. All the “minor” roles added to an overall great performance. Honorable mention to tenor Sebastian Monti, who, in the roles of Apollo and Morpheus, made his mark.
And, in the end, a word for the chorus, who had a very active role in the performance, getting involved in dancing and different choreographies. They were all young and very mobile on stage; some of them obviously had some dancing experience. And still, the singing was extremely good.
French Baroque Rules! As always.