Hebe, goddess of youth and cupbearer of the gods, has got fed up with Mount Olympus, not least with the unwanted attentions of Momus, god of satire and mockery. She wings it down to earth, where she alights (where else) on the banks of the Seine, to discover a raft of festivities awaiting her, each representing the lyric talents of poetry, music and dance – from the pen of none other than the court composer par excellence, Jean-Philippe Rameau. Back in 1739, the glorification of Paris as the centre of the artistic world can’t have been missed by a single audience member.
It takes a brave company to turn Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques into something suitable for a London audience: the opéra-ballet form is so far from our current concept of opera and we lack so much of the cultural context that would have been so familiar to the denizens of Paris in 1739 – even in South Kensington, with a substantial body of French people in the audience.
The project is braver still when you realise that this UK première of Les fêtes d’Hébé was not a fully professional production, but a co-operation between three conservatoires who have never previously worked together in this way (the Paris Opéra’s Academy, the Royal College of Music and the Baroque Music Centre at Versailles). And it didn’t quite come off, for a variety of reasons – either as an introduction to an unfamiliar genre or as a showcase for Rameau’s music or for the talents of the individual singers – in spite of generally high energy and a number of good performances.
The opéra-ballet style has more akin to a variety show than to an opera: Les fêtes d’Hébé has four sections with relatively little linkage between them, each being a free intermingling of song, chorus and dance. The principal problem here was the choice of abstract choreography, settings and costumes, with attention focused on the visuals (for example, each of three Entrées being presented in monochrome, colour cast to each of blue, red and yellow) and limited attention paid to acting skills. The audience being unfamiliar with the characters (these are either minor mythological figures, or real people like Sappho used completely out of context), it was very hard to relate what we were seeing to any form of narrative, and one struggled even to work out who was who. Overheard interval conversations (in French just as much as English) revealed a great deal of bemusement as to what any of it meant.
While Thomas Lebrun’s choreography was opaque, its execution by the six dancers was crisp and visually appealing, moves were executed with style and good coordination. And there were good vocal performances. As Hébé in the Prologue, Pauline Texier showed a promising voice, particularly smooth and creamy at the top of her range, albeit less confident in the lower semiquaver runs; her Églé in the third Entrée was nicely sung, marred slightly by some repetitive overacting of having “fallen in lust” with Juan de Dios Mateos’ Mercure – the best of the male voices of the evening, strong and persuasive. I also enjoyed Tomasz Kumiega, who has a good baritone timbre and elegant phrasing. Mikhail Timoshenko proved how hard it is for young basses to have the heft for deep bass roles: the voice was good in so many ways but lacking in raw power. Among the four RCM students (given the minor roles) Julieth Lozano stood out – a purity of soprano tone and ability to inject character which made me sit up and listen.
The orchestra, however, did not fare as well, suffering from intonation problems and wobbles for much of the evening. Conductor Jonathan Williams kept the tempi relentlessly upbeat throughout – laudable in the cheerful numbers, but I think Rameau deserves more variety and I would have liked Williams to give musicians and singers space to develop the more lyrical passages.
In sum, a demonstration, if one were needed, of the depth of young talent coming through these conservatoires – both vocally and in dance. But I’d hoped for an evening to persuade an English audience that it’s been missing out on the virtues of Rameau: I can't fault this production's ambition and effort, but the staging, choreography and orchestral performance failed to achieve that result.
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