Rameau’s opera-ballet, Les Fêtes d’ Hébé, has just been performed at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre, on 5 and 6 April. This is the UK premiere of the work, nearly three-hundred years after its opening at the Palais-Royal in Paris in 1739. The production was the result of a three-year collaboration between the Académie de l’ Opéra de Paris, les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles and the Royal College of Music. Let’s hope the cooperation among these artistic centres of excellence will continue post-Brexit.
Despite Rameau’s importance in the history of music, few of his operas have been performed in the UK. A complete and a partial recording of Les Fêtes d’ Hébé by, respectively, Les Arts Florissants (1997) and the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra (1977) received high praise, but the work was never staged here. Why? Two characteristics of French opera of this period will have been major factors: its particular mixture of singing and ballet; and its relative lack of drama and character development, when compared to the work of a contemporary such as Handel.
The music – with its arias, choral pieces and orchestration of extraordinary beauty and richness – deserves to be brought to the attention of the British public. The work is of deep interest also in that it provides intriguing context for that of subsequent composers, including Mozart. Hopefully we won’t have to wait long for the future staging of more of Rameau’s operas.
Thomas Lebrun – director, set designer and choreographer – has opted for a decidedly modern production. The sets are stylised – they work in their own right, and could do without the distracting video-projected backgrounds. The three sections of the opera-ballet are separated by colour, underlining Rameau’s tenuous linking of them by means of a light framing device; at the same time, Lebrun uses ballet to bring out every connecting thread to great effect. The dancers are a marvel of energy and lightness – the only critique is to the costume designer, who could have been more flattering to them. Among the singers, Laure Poissonnier as Cupid, Adriana Gonzales as Sappho and Iphise, and Mikhail Timoshenko as Hymas and Tyrtaeus, stood out for their sumptuous voices, with remarkable command over their vocal ranges and with convincing acting. The choral singers revealed by their performance why Rameau was so widely admired by contemporaries for his mastery of harmony. The orchestra could not have been under a better baton: Jonathan Williams is one of the top Rameau experts in the country – and it showed. The only regret is that Les Fêtes d’ Hébé has been performed in London for only two nights – unsurprisingly, it was sold out. Let’s hope that those unable to obtain tickets won’t have to wait too many years for a revival of this production.
Links to this and others’ reviews of Les Fêtes d’ Hébé can be found on The Opera Critic.com.
Royal College of Music, London, photo by David Iliff. Reproduced under CC License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Portrait of Jean-Philippe Rameau, attributed to Jacques Aved. Photographer unknown. Reproduced under Public Domain License.
Title page of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie. Reproduced under Public Domain License.
Image of TheOperaCritic.com‘s coverage of Les Fêtes d’ Hébé is from its website.