Dardanus, or baroque opera in all its glory? For sure, the 1739 version has all the necessary features, but Michel Fau's staging, propelled by extraordinarily modern sets and costumes, transports us to a unique universe. Conducted by Raphaël Pichon at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, Rameau's original verbose work receives an exceptional rebirth.

© Frédéric Desmesure
© Frédéric Desmesure

Rameau was 56 years old when he composed Dardanus, somewhere between a tragic opera and a ballet. La Bruère's libretto has often been criticised for its simplicity, telling as it does a closed-door love story of no great originality: Iphise, who is promised to Antenor, the ally of her father Teucer, is torn between her filial duty and her passion for Dardanus, son of Jupiter and Teucer's sworn enemy. The work is pervaded by a supernatural atomosphere which often takes on a dream-like quality, notably in the "ballet of Dreams".

The voices in the two lead roles weren't picked by chance. Mezzo Gaëlle Arquez (Iphise) and tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen (Dardanus) both state that they prefer singing the baroque repertoire in an unmannered fashion. Arquez, who was Pichon's choice for his recording of Dardanus, was proof of this, projecting Iphise's travails with energy but never with excess. No shortage of emotion either for van Mechelen, whose rich and deep voice enlivens the despair of her lover Dardanus. The other notable performance was that of Karina Gauvin as a powerful, radiant Venus, very much at ease in this style of singing (chosen in place of Sabine Devieilhe, who sings Venus on the recording.)

© Frédéric Desmesure
© Frédéric Desmesure

In this staging of Dardanus, what will stay in the mind longest are Emmanuel Charles's sets, exceptionally modern yet perfectly in the service of this solidly baroque work. With a constant play of light and shadow, the scenery comes to life, interlocks, creates a phantasmagorical atmosphere. The colours are candy, electric, carefully toned. Crimson appears in many of the items of scenery, several of which bring together various elements: the ground, buds and the flowers that grow from them, a sky which is starry, cloudy or rent by thunder, the sea stirred by Neptune's fury. Glitter and changes of lighting colour add to feel of baroque under a new, modern sky, perhaps faintly kitsch – with a telling example in Venus's palace.

© Frédéric Desmesure
© Frédéric Desmesure
David Belugou's costumes co-ordinate with the sets. The most fantastic and hilarious of these is that of the sea monster dispatched by Neptune to punish the Phrygians for holding Dardanus captive: entirely moulded onto its wearer's body. Surrealism comes even more to the fore in Act IV, when Dardanus's sleep is enfolded by "The Dreams". These hypnotic, three-headed creatures dance and flap their wings/fins in convoluted fashion, appearing to phosphoresce in the shadows. Finally, death appears in the dancers' masque and the final set as a giant skeleton, kneeling with hands clasped. This set appears at the point where Dardanus believes that he can no longer escape his unhappy end. He escapes and celebrates his union with Iphise, but the funereal set appears once more for one last dance, as if to underline the work's ambivalence.

This ambivalence is a major feature of Dardanus which is highlighted as much by its intrigue as by the staging. The dances, bouncy and airy, are continually cutting through the work's tragic progress. In fact, choreographer Christopher Williams has gone for a highly contemporary style, but once again, one which brings to mind a baroque aesthetic, and the music's gaiety often fails to correspond to the drama being played out. Conducting the Pygmalion Ensemble this evening, Raphaël Pichon gave a sterling performance and succeeded in expressing this emotional duality.

© Frédéric Desmesure
© Frédéric Desmesure

Although the version of Dardanus recorded by Pichon is the second one, adapted by Rameau in 1744, it's the original 1739 version that was staged here: it's a richer piece of theatre, thanks not least to a number of the supernatural scenes such as that of the Dreams and the magician. Michel Fau thus presents "a deliriously aesthetic excess", which literally transports us for three hours.

 

Translated into English by David Karlin