If you thought opera was an art form dedicated to the “park and bark” supersized, you would have your assumptions happily blasted away at Opera Lafayette’s celebratory dance mash with slithering aqua body-suited Nile creatures, an Amazon army of gorgeous jingling-footed Indian dancers, and early-form French-court ballet dancers with their graceful port de bras and silent falling tombés, mixed with a rich assortment of other characters including a frisky and beguiling satyr and a strutting ostrich thrown in for good measure.
Opera Lafayette has broken its own mold of bringing 18th century opera faithfully and beautifully to the stage. I have always enjoyed the company’s work and continue to be impressed and carried away by Artistic Director Ryan Brown’s deep command and passion for the music of this repertoire. But sometimes I have found myself experiencing a performance as if looking at an exquisite music box through the wrong end of a telescope: it all seemed so delightfully precious and distant.
Not so the current production now at Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. Les Fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, ou Les Dieux d’Égypte fairly explodes on stage as cultures, dance styles, and singing collide, but all in the resplendent service of extolling the power of love – and music-theatre.
The original opera was created quickly, even feverishly, at an awkward time for the French crown. The French had lost prematurely their Dauphin’s first wife, and without an heir, Louis XV had marshaled all efforts to remarrying his son hastily and with suitable cultural festivities. Composer Jean-Philippe Rameau and his librettist Louis de Cahusac co-opted their most recent work and fashioned a make-over with the themes of a story of reconciliation of Love and Hymen, the Greek god of Marriage.
At the time, the French were also mad about “the orient” which was also re-fashioned according to their mythically-fired imagination. Rameau and Cahusac, appealing to public taste, therefore kept in elements of classical Egypt from their original idea for a music-theatre work. Exoticism was in, and plus est plus (more is more) which may explain the ostrich. If some of the elements seem more than a trifle politically incorrect for our times – cultural imperialism abounding with the singing of the “barbarians” (ie the Egyptian-Amazon warriors) needing to be tamed and civilized by the love-loving western-fashioned Greek gods – well, blame the French.
The abruptness of shifts of musical styles and story, which irritated a few critics of the period, can find today a more open-minded audience, used to cinematic cuts and channel surfing. Most of us can ride this approach to popular entertainment.
Les Fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, ou Les Dieux d’Égypte
3 hours with 1 intermission
This production had 1 performance at the Kennedy Center, October 6, 2014
On October 9, 2014, it performs at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall,
New York City
After all, the piece was conceived as a kind of popular Cirque du Soleil event with dance being more integrated than as skimpy interludes. Brown wisely chose to bring in three choreographers to stage the work rather than a single opera-steeped stage director. Catherine Turocy who heads up the The New York Baroque Dance Company, has been a long time collaborator with Brown and Opera Lafayette, was a natural for this experiment. Her dancers continue to impress me as if they live in these costumes and gestural language of the 18th century. They get, as few do in this country, the values of moderation, softness of limbs, nuanced petit bourées footwork, and elegant but un-ostentatious deportment. They have down every detail from the language of the wrist and fingers to the presentation of an open-turned calf while the gentle rise and fall of their limbs creates an almost hypnotic wave effect.
What better employment of contrast to bring in a dance style equally steeped in language of the hands and as rich in story-telling than classical Indian dance! The Kalanidhi Dance Company and its founder-director Anuradha Nehru, a world-renowned dancer, furthers the Kuchipudi tradition of Indian dance. The “mudras” or hand postures, helped unify the whole evening. Her dancers would periodically sweep onto the stage, as the Amazon warriors, drawing imaginary bows, sternly pointing their fingers in warning, slapping their feet on the floor in rhythmic patterns, and taking the energetic experience of the whole work to a higher level.
Seán Curran’s resume of choreographic achievement in dance and opera and his dancers brought a welcome contemporary counterpoint to the performance. The bicycle-peddling, torso-undulating, arm-balancing company’s style made a coherent impression of the Nile River at times. At others, the personalities of individual dancers would come forth with more than a smack of attitude, making us enjoy the implicit competing companies for each one’s style and panache. When all three companies were brought together as at the end, passing and sharing each other’s movement style in incredible flashes of choreographed brilliance — it was indeed a celebration in the service of love.
Don’t get me wrong, there was some excellent singing going on, but even here, their body language and attention to gesture dazzled me as much and, on the rare occasion, threatened to eclipse their vocal chops just because it was so refeshing. Singers who can really move and carry the emotions and relationships through their body!
Take Tenor Jeffrey Thompson, who nearly stole the show in his over-the-top performance as a court fool in Le Roi et le Fermier by Opera Lafayette. Here he fills the more majestic character of Osiris, but no wooden god-figure, he is equally risk-taking in his sinuous, narcissistic movements and the vocal styling of every line, reeling you in and out with his idiosyncratic sustained notes and pronounced ornamentation. “Allow love to reign,” he keeps singing, seducing all on and off stage.
François Lis may not be as nimble in his physical movements as some of his colleagues but his singing as Canope( aka Nilée, God of the Nile) is rich and compelling as he dives into an almost unfathomable well for the darkest of sounds. He is also totally believable as a brooding lover, and his scenes with Soprano Ingrid Perruche, as the sacrificial intended, Memphis, for whom he would lay down his life, was breathtaking in sound, rapport, and sheer emotion.
Ingrid Perruche dazzled me doubly for she also played Mirrine, the angry and unrepentant amazon companion to her Queen, Clair Debono (spoiler alert, the Queen who caves in to Love and Osiris’ arguments.) Perruche’s voice like her body in the two roles totally changed style, emotion, and even center of gravity. This is truly a singer-actress of extraordinary range, while Maltese soprano Debono, dressed in a red richly-designed robe combining Indian and Egyptian motifs, is as gorgeous to watch as she is to listen to with her most tender soprano sound.
Kelly Ballou and Laetitia Spitzer Grimaldi are young singers already with impressive credits and voices. They set the whole framework for this opera by playing as “pants roles” Hymen, whom I interpreted as the Dauphin stand-in receiving a pep talk from Cupid on “getting it up” for love and marriage.
All the singers and dancers were of exceptionally high quality and worked together exceedingly well to blend styles and story strands as did the design team. Special mention must be made of the fabulous Colin K. Bills, who magically lit the Concert Hall in rich golds, purples, and umbers, transforming the backdrop of organ pipes at one point into a burnished fiery blaze. Jennifer Tardiff Beall designed most of the costumes with a grand sense of dramatic purpose, intentionally contrasting the pale silks and silvery brocades of the western court with the rich earth-toned, sari-inspired costumes bejeweled with gold.
The orchestra must also get full credit for its remarkable blend. One can only begin to have some idea of how difficult it is to keep these ancient instruments working together by hearing the periodic retuning on stage. There was an occasional miscreant in the murkier wind section in this performance, but otherwise once again Brown proves himself a maestro. He and his team of choreographers keep the action and music moving briskly along for a delicious entertainment fit for kings.
Les Fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, ou Les Dieux d’Égypte . Music by Jean-Philippe Rameau . Libretto by Louis de Cahusac . Conducted by Ryan Brown . Co-Directed and Choreographed by Catherine Turocy, Anuradha Nehru and Seán Curran . Cast: Claire Debono, Jeffrey Thompson, Ingrid Perruche, François Lis, Aaron Sheehan, Kelly Ballou, Laetitia Spitzer Grimaldi, William Sharp, and Kyle Bielfield . Produced by Opera Lafayette . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.