Concert review

Les Boréades at the Proms 19th July 1999

A packed Royal Albert Hall for Rameau's originally ill-fated opera, about conflict between love and dynastic duty, showed how times have changed. Still little known, it is one of his most endearing. Rameau began composing Les Boréades in 1750, but it was not finally performed for another two hundred years. Before a planned production the theatre burnt down, and its message of liberty above all was risky in the years leading to the Revolution. Although punctuated by the cusomary opportunities for delicious dance divertissements, the plot surges forward with impressive continuity. An unthinkable royal abdication is averted only by a last minute revelation, when the Queen's favoured, but unacceptable, suitor learns, after both had suffered transports of despair, that he is of noble (that is, divine) parentage.

Simon Rattle brought Les Boréades to London, with amusing semi-staging derived from the Salzburg Festival production. This displeased some members of the Proms audience, but counterpointed the period mixture of convention and raw emotion in a way that is becoming usual nowadays (c.f. the hilarious Platée given recently at Paris Opera). Led by Barbara Bonney as Queen Alphise, beset on all sides by a trio of increasingly deserate lovers, Rattle's cast was uniformly strong. A new choir, Simon Halsey's European Voices, made a notable debut in this production.

Everyone sung from memory and Simon Rattle's affection for the piece was evident throughout. The Orchestra of the Enlightenment, with a large winds component, responded to his every nuance of phrasing, and sounded magnificent close by the platform and equally so on the broadcast repeat as heard on digital satellite radio. During the first half, from distant seats in the stalls, much had been lost, especially the delicate tones of baroque flutes and the bloom of Barbara Bonney's soprano. Heidi Grant Murphy took subsidiary four parts, and projected her brighter voice more easily, as did Charles Workman as her so nearly diplaced lover. David Wilson-Johnson was eye and ear catching as the winningly evil Boreas, god of the North Wind.

All was satisfactorily and amicably resolved at the end, to general rejoicing and contredanses très vives. Rameau's invention is marvellously fresh throughout, with surprises around every corner; the music ravishingly beautiful one moment, thrilling in its virtuosity and orchestral imagination the next. The programme gave full words and translations; without which listeners at home must have been confused about who was singing and what was happening.


Peter Grahame Woolf

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