Heavenly noises: Dardanus at the Opéra de Bordeaux

Rameau – Dardanus

Vénus – Karina Gauvin

Iphise – Gaëlle Arquez

Dardanus – Reinoud van Mechelen

Anténor – Florian Sempey

Teucer / Isménor – Nahuel di Pierro

Un songe / l’Amour / Bergère / Bellone – Katherine Watson

Un Phrygien – Étienne Bazola

Un songe – Virgile Ancely

Un songe – Guillaume Gutiérrez

Ensemble Pygmalion / Raphaël Pichon

Stage director – Michel Fau

Opéra de Bordeaux – Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, Bordeaux.  Sunday, April 26th, 2015

This was my first visit to the stunningly beautiful Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux.  It is without a doubt one of the world’s most exquisite theatres.  Inaugurated in 1780 and restored in 1991, the auditorium itself is highly decorative and wonderfully intimate, with seats for 1100.  Indeed, only 40 years younger than Dardanus itself, it is an ideal venue for Rameau and today we received a superb historically-informed performance.  It is perfectly possible to attend the Sunday afternoon matinees on a day trip from London, which I did today.  With extremely high musical and production standards, this house deserves a place on any music lover’s schedules.

Karina Gauvin, ballet © Fréderic Desmesure
Karina Gauvin, ballet © Fréderic Desmesure

The production itself was interesting.  Visually ravishing, the stage reflected the beauty of the auditorium with the chorus mainly singing from boxes that matched those in the house itself.  The action took place in the centre of the stage with characters emerging to the front as necessary.  The most striking entrance came from Karina Gauvin’s Vénus who in act 4 descended from the flies on an enormous rosebush, wearing a shocking pink dress and a huge feather headdress. She looked like she loved every moment of it.

Reinoud van Mechelen, Gaëlle Arquez, Nahuel di Pierro, Ensemble Pygmalion © Fréderic Desmesure
Reinoud van Mechelen, Gaëlle Arquez, Nahuel di Pierro, Ensemble Pygmalion © Fréderic Desmesure

In a way, perhaps the downside of the staging was that the characters were not quite flesh and blood – that their plight wasn’t quite as universalized as that of Bieito’s Platée for example, the most recent Rameau production I have seen.  And yet, this approach is certainly of a piece with the work itself.  This is a story from antiquity and as such it is perfectly appropriate to envisage it within the realms of fantasy and not of the everyday.  At the same, time this does not mean that we were unable to identify with the characters – Dardanus’ ‘lieux funestes’ was delivered with exactly the solitary yearning and despair it really needed and Iphise’s personal conflict was absolutely clear.  Personenregie was imaginative, although there was a lot of standing and delivering at the audience – inevitable with the approach used; in this kind of aesthetic, it would be hard to imagine otherwise.  In a way, it felt that we were watching a recreation of the kind of production the work might have had in Rameau’s time, yet it was no museum piece.  It was a living, breathing piece of theatre, at times highly camp and garish, at times tragic, moving and full of pathos.  It was certainly a work of imagination and was fluently executed by a dedicated cast.

Reinoud van Mechelen, Nahuel di Pierro © Fréderic Desmesure
Reinoud van Mechelen, Nahuel di Pierro © Fréderic Desmesure

Vocally, it’s hard to imagine a better performance – this really was Rameau singing of the very highest quality.  Reinoud van Mechelen is a singer new to me.  Not yet in his thirties, he has a very bright future in this repertoire.  The voice is elegantly schooled, with a creamy agility that is beguiling to listen to.  It’s not the most powerful instrument, but it is used with genuine elegance and musicality, the registers fully integrated and not a hint of strain at the top.  He also made much of the text.  Indeed, the quality of the sung text was outstanding.  In a cast with a number of francophone singers alongside the Flemish, Argentine and English artists, every single word was audible and the surtitles superfluous.

Nahuel di Pierro, Florian Sempey, Gaëlle Arquez © Fréderic Desmesure
Nahuel di Pierro, Florian Sempey, Gaëlle Arquez © Fréderic Desmesure

Gaëlle Arquez was superb as Iphise.  The voice is a nice size, easily produced, the vibrations even and rich.  Very impressive.  Nahuel di Pierro brought some phenomenal low notes to his twin characters of Teucer and Isménor.  He threw himself into the production and gave us some rich and eloquent singing.  The voice has an attractive graininess and wonderful depth and the notes at the very bottom were nicely secure.  Florian Sempey’s Anténor, sang his highly challenging aria with remarkable ease, nailing the enormous range as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  Then we had Gauvin’s Vénus.  She was a fabulous presence on stage and not only did she look like she was having the time of her life incarnating the regal figure, she also gave us a singing lesson in the process.  The voice with its distinctive creamy frutiness is instantly recognizable.  She navigated the florid writing with the utmost ease and delivered her act 4 aria with the utmost delicacy.  In the smaller roles, Katherine Watson impressed as multiple characters with her bright, easy soprano and flexible stage presence.

Karina Gauvin, Reinoud van Mechelen, Nahuel di Pierro, Gaëlle Arquez © Fréderic Desmesure
Karina Gauvin, Reinoud van Mechelen, Nahuel di Pierro, Gaëlle Arquez © Fréderic Desmesure

The chorus sang with wonderful blend and theatre-filling sound.  I loved the way the hautes-contre added extra spice to the texture and ensemble was wonderfully precise and unanimous.  The orchestra played with ravishing tone, immaculate stylishness  and intonation was spot-on.  Raphaël Pichon’s conducting was well-paced, fluent and effective where necessary.  There were a few very small passages towards the end of act 2 where the tension sagged a little too much but otherwise this was a masterful reading from a conductor who really understands this music.

Ensemble Pygmalion © Fréderic Desmesure
Ensemble Pygmalion © Fréderic Desmesure

This was a glorious afternoon in the theatre, imbued with the very atmosphere of this exquisite venue.  The staging was imaginative and full of colour and it benefitted from the outstanding playing of a superb orchestra.  This was also music drama that genuinely lived with the text, sung by a cast that had clearly been hand-picked with care.  Fortunately, the show is available to watch online – an ideal opportunity to watch at home with a nice bottle of Bordeaux.

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