English Touring Opera’s autumn season offers us a brand-new production of Rameau’s masterpiece Dardanus, the first full staging of the 1744 version of the opera and presented with a revised edition of the score edited by Oxford musicologist Gilles Rico and directed by Douglas Rintoul. This new version, commissioned by the European Opera Centre, incorporates elements of all three iterations of the opera – 1739, 1744, and the 1760 revival, but strips back a number of scenes from longer versions, whilst elongating others. The result is a work of dazzling intensity and compression, whose emotional and dramatic energies were focalised through Jonathan Williams’ conducting.

The story of the opera pitches the more tender of human capacities – love and clemency – against the horrors of state violence. Dardanus, son of Jupiter, has won a bloody victory against King Teucer, who renews his offensive against them with his ally Anténor; the Phrygians want vengeance, but Iphise, daughter of Teucer, is in love with Dardanus. Dardanus is captured after going behind enemy lines to find his love, also the object of Anténor’s affections; Teucer preaches clemency in the face of the mob, though a final battle then puts Dardanus’ forces back in the driving seat, and Dardanus in turn shows mercy to Teucer, and the opera ends with Venus celebrating the union of Dardanus and Iphise, who, in this production, emerges from the chorus of guerrilla fighters itself.

The action unfolded on a raised central rectangle. This platform was covered in fine grey ash or dirt that clung to costumes, bare feet and wrists (the latter bound in Dardanus’ searching Act 4 aria “Lieux funestes”, begun on his knees); the effect was to dust the stage with the granular detritus of perpetual war. Combat fatigues and AK-47s have, in some productions, become a rather tiresome way for directors to ameliorate their anxieties about relevance. In this Dardanus the setting was mercifully unobtrusive, and successfully scaled down the epic and mythic dimensions of a text adapted from Charles-Antoine Leclerc de la Bruère, leaving  the social and personal dilemmas propelling the drama.

‘Make Love Not War’ might sound a lightweight directorial take, but the production articulated a clear sense of moral and psychological transformation. Venus slipping a flower into the barrel of an AK-47 might sound alarmingly twee, but in context it lifted, with gentle comedy, the fog of war and fate. The opera opened with the partisans and soldiers lighting candles at the boots of the fallen – a Phrygian mausoleum – but this act of mourning generates only further retaliation and violence, with Iphise standing apart. But the final tableau saw the soldiers shed their uniforms and assemble the shattered fragments of the palace into a memorial for the fallen. Here, acknowledgement of loss catalysed a renewal of the capacity to love even our enemies, a particularly compelling aspect of a production that earlier featured a mob baying for the blood of Dardanus who was brutalised, in a juicy onstage beating, by his captors in Act 3.

The Old Street Band, the period instrument ensemble backing up ETO’s mammoth Baroque programme this autumn, had a special sense of the charcoal shades of Rameau’s astounding score. The opening music of Act 2, where we meet magician Isménor for the first time – Dardanus, Anténor, and Iphise all seek his uncanny foresight – had just the right amount of sul ponticello bite in the strings to make the scene properly ghostly. The pianissimo passages were always edge-of-the-seat stuff. Rameau’s extraordinary suspensions, unresolved dissonances, and peculiar modulations were presented with exemplary transparency by the strings. 

A capable cast buttressed high-quality music from the pit. If Timothy Nelson’s voice occasionally sounded less pure and more uneven than it might have done, he was never less than dramatically compelling, grimly adorned at the outset with the dog tags of his dead comrades, only to then be squeezed in the vice of jealousy and hatred. His “Monstre affreux” was delivered with sinewy and bone-chilling horror, its backdrop an emotional and psychological wasteland of grimly Beckettian spareness. 

Frederick Long as the haggard sorcerer Isménor was in commanding voice, and at moments his tensile bass was suggestive of Jochanaan in Strauss' Salome, and his terrifying powers of insight, placing him between the worlds of god and man, were beguilingly summoned in the dark hues of his lower register; Grant Doyle, as Teucer, evoked nobility and desperation in equal measure. Anthony Gregory as Dardanus impressed throughout, with delicate, rounded timbre in the upper register. Soprano Galina Averina sang Iphise with lean urgency, suspending the audience between the poles of rawness and tenderness.