It seems like only yesterday when baroque
opera was practically unheard and unstaged.
Monteverdi, Handel, Lully and Purcell were merely footnotes in opera history until the period-instrument movement of the late-1970s resurrected them, helping make baroque opera the norm rather than the exception. What was once played for historical reasons is now done because there’s an audience.
From June 9 through June 15, conductor William Christie and Les Arts Florissants will present "Les Boreades" (1763), the last opera by French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, closing BAM’s spring season.
Les Arts Florissants, named after a work by French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, is certainly no stranger to BAM as "Les Boreades" - its seventh fully staged opera - will be its 13th appearance there since debuting in 1989.
Christie and Les Arts Florissants’ Erato recordings are arguably the greatest hits of baroque music.
But, with Christie and his cohorts are newer members of BAM’s artistic family: stage director Robert Carsen, whose second BAM staging this is (the first, appropriately, was Handel’s "Orlando" with Christie and Co.), and the Paris National Opera - where this production originated - making its American debut.
Of Rameau’s late operas, "Zoroastre" (1756) and "Les Boreades" recount mythological stories: "Zoroastre" is no less than the ultimate battle between good and evil, while "Les Boreades" goes a few steps further, as the four seasons go to war over a queen’s questionable romance. In both operas, Rameau hones a distinctive genre: the French opera-ballet, an early attempt to meld two art forms together.
For his part, Carsen wanted to ensure both were given their due in "Les Boreades."
"I wanted to create a production in which dance isn’t just tacked on but is integral to the story," he explained by telephone from Paris, where he’s currently working with singer Ute Lemper.
"I wanted to find the raison d’etre for the dance, and I was delighted when [choreographer] Edouard Lock and his company [La La La Human Steps] agreed to take part," said Carsen. "His choreography is not traditionally ’period’ baroque movement - it’s dangerous, fast, thrilling, and slightly worrying, which is right for this piece."
Carsen modestly defers to Rameau for certain decisions since, upon reaching artistic maturity, the composer bypassed the rote conventions of baroque opera.
"Rameau’s musical construction is so surprising and so amazing that by itself it creates a kind of architecture, and I want the audience to be aware of that sturdy structure," the director explained. "A production should support the music, which is why this production is quite light scenically, to let it feel like a modern dance space. When there’s too much clutter onstage, you get in the way of the music and the characters."
Carsen also had no hesitation deferring to Christie, with whom he’s collaborated on several productions - BAMgoers fondly recall 1996’s "Orlando" - because of the conductor’s inarguable baroque-era expertise.
"My collaboration with [Christie] goes back 10 years now, and is always a great delight," the director said. "Working with good friends is important, since there’s a great deal of trust, the essential building-block for any kind of collaboration. And when he’s conducting Rameau, he’s emotionally connected with each character onstage, whatever they’re experiencing. It’s not just a fast or a slow tempo - it requires something extra, the ability to suffer with the characters. And [Christie] absolutely has that."
So does Rameau, in spades, even though "Les Boreades" was mysteriously abandoned during rehearsals and was never heard until after its composer died.
Carsen doesn’t even worry about transferring the production from the enormous Paris National Opera stage to the smaller stage at BAM. "We have 80-something people on the stage, so it should be interesting to see how it looks at BAM, whose stage is only half as deep as the stage in Paris [where] we had the premiere," he said. "But we had made allowances for that when we first conceived it, so there shouldn’t be a problem."
All that’s left now is to give American audiences their first look at an opera that was composed, astonishingly, 240 years ago, when Rameau was 81. Better late than never for fans of baroque opera and Les Arts Florissants.
The Les Arts Florissants production of "Les Boreades" plays the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene, on June 9, 11 and 13 at 7:30 pm, and June 15 at 2 pm. Tickets are $30, $75, $110 on weekdays and $40, $85 and $125 on weekends. For more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.