The Gallant Romania

Jean-Philippe Rameau: LES INDES GALANTES
16 November 2012 – oh, and what a Friday! at the Romanian National Opera, Iași – Grand Hall of the National Theatre, Iași.
Conductor: Gabriel Bebeșelea, Stage direction and lightning: Andrei Șerban, Coreographer: Blanca Li, Scenographer: Marina Drăghici, Orchestra, Choir and Ballet of the Romanian National Opera, Iași.
Cristina Grigoraș (Hebe), Lucian Dolhascu (Bellone), Andreea Chinez (L’Amour), Octavian Dumitru (Huascar), Alice Todica (Phani), Alexandru Savin (Don Carlos), Daniel Mateianu (Osman), Angelica Mecu Solomon (Emilie), Radmilo Petrovici (Valere), Alexandru Savin (Tacmas), Rodica Vica (Zaire, Fatime), Jean-Kristof Bouton (Adario), Andrei Fermesanu (Damon), George Cojocariu (Don Alvar), Lăcrămioara-Maria Hrubaru-Roată (Zima).

With the reinvention of musical baroque, that included all the crazy cavalcade of the orchestras playing on period instruments, with conductors who originated more from musicologists searching the archives of palaces more than from the concert halls of classical music, after the shocks named Monteverdi or Haendel, after reconsidering Bach, the rapid and necessary step was to recover French baroque music. Jean Philippe Rameau was not absent from the repertoire of Philip Herreweghe, maybe the most human interpreter of Bach, so far from Karajan’s inhumane classicism, but so close, as sum of the joys it provides, to Leonhardt, Koopman, Gardiner, Bruggen – his CD with the orchestral suites from Les Indes Galantes appears in 1984. And after other different musical trials, after all sorts of compilations that made us listen to that music from the past in the same state of amazement as for our first visit to Versailles and Tuilleries, Prado or Residenz, in 1992, William Christie makes a complete studio recording of the opera.

22 years ago, I remember it perfectly!, I was on a night train, sleepless like all the other travellers, going from Iași to Bucharest, in order to see live a play like nobody had ever seen in Romania: The Antique Trilogy. Having just returned to Romania, Andrei Șerban was showing us, in an exceptionally beautiful naïveté, what theatre really meant. That neither Medea, nor The Trojan Women, or Elektra necessarily needs a translation from ancient Greek in order for the audience to understand them more profoundly than when reading them, as a fly on the ceiling of the royal palace intrigues, as a helpless witness to the agony of Troy, or as real spectators in the antique amphitheatre. Never before had the dramatic art been more palpable, more material, more real.

And now, after so many years, I have the same feeling, going the other way, from Bucharest to Iași, accompanied by the above-mentioned CDs, to see again one of Andrei Șerban’s productions. The context is almost ideal: The National Theatre of Iași, where some of the National Opera productions are played, has just been renovated, a good reason for rediscovering the splendour of this building. Also, Șerban`s mise en scène made a very good impression in Paris a few years ago, the images on the DVD from Palais Garnier make me anticipate, in my mind already, what I will see in just a few hours. The opening night was yesterday, I haven`t read the reviews (in case there has been any), for me, the opening night will be today, with the second performance. And, in a month, the miracle will happen, The Trojan Women, maybe the most spectacular part of The Ancient Trilogy, will be again in Romani, here, in Iași, and I am wondering how many students from Bucharest will come to see it?


Been there! Seen it! And I can hardly believe it`s over!

First of all, after 8 years of restorations, 8 endless years, the National Theatre in Iași looks as if it has been waiting all this time for nothing but Rameau`s baroque music.

Impeccable is the key word of this reinvention. Not the smallest trace of imprecision or lack of attention, everything is perfected up to the last detail, so that the result looks as if from another civilisation, from another European culture. And the strange thing is that the building process itself took less (only two years: 1894-1896) than the restoration…

Les Indes Galantes was composed in 1735, and in 1736, while revising it, Rameau added the last act. The name ”opera-ballet” differs slightly from the opera as we know it today, the acts were named entrées and they had different subjects and characters, the only common thing was the message, the idea. Between the entrées there were ballet intermissions. Rameau composed this opera after witnessing the visit of some American Indians to Louis XV palace and he chose as musical expression a road already taken 40 years before by André Campra, with his opera-ballet L’Europe Galante. Campra placed the action of all his 4 entrées, all love stories, in France, Spain, Italy and Turkey, the same countries we find in Leporello`s catalogue, one hundred years later, in a totally different love and a completely different music. But Rameau chose as libretto-musical destinations Turkey, Persia, Peru and North America. Those who were curious to listen to The Gallant Indies discovered that the subject of the first entrée, The Generous Turk, (that exchanged places, this evening, with the second entrée, The Incas of Peru) is nothing else but the story from Mozart`s The Abduction from the Serail. If the difference between an act of opera-ballet and an act of singspiel is from 30 minutes to two hours, nevertheless, the difference between Rameau and Mozart, in terms of music, is one century of evolution, one era, one world. A world we understand less and less today. Because discovering the baroque music of the French XVIIIth century is one thing, and emotionally identifying yourself with it is something completely different. In fact, it is impossible. What was totally new 300 years ago is, today, just a history we do not understand anymore. If we want to compare further, it is like looking at the first photos, in black and white, with ordinary mountain landscape. The great novelty of 100 years ago makes us smile ironically and slightly nostalgically at the most.

Or this is exactly the essence of Andrei Șerban’s production. With an effort of imagination, we could very well describe what made Rameau`s contemporaries shiver with pleasure: a minimal stage decoration, dominated by a painted fabric full of trompe l’oeil effects, soloists and ballet dancers dressed in heavy and sophisticated clothes, discretely pretending to dance minuets. Only a historian could vibrate in front of such images. But not the audience of our days. The allegories about goddesses pouring urges to love or war, such as the characters of the Prologue, might have heated the powdered wigs of the Illuminist French aristocracy, but today the wigs exist no more and, for a regular music lover to sigh exhausted at the end of a verismo  aria, one needs much more than a reconstruction of the baroque. With Andrei Șerban, the successful artifice is intrusion. The choirs sing among the audience, the opera heroes come down from the stage and go up to the theatre boxes, to the balcony, between rows, so that you can touch them and become part of the performance.

But even more and maybe above all these directing solutions, the main thing conveyed by the production in Paris of 1999 (not 2003, as it was written several times, in the endless press previews) is a subtle tenderness. The ironic smile stays close to authenticity. The period costumes dance modern ballet on baroque music. And the music reveals itself as one to dance to, like William Christie remarked in the documentary accompanying the DVD from Paris. This is how we can explain all the moments of this fabulous performance. By tenderness and empathic irony. But you must see it first, all comments are insufficient. You must see the walking minaret, the ship on top of the wig, the caricatural Turks, the helicoidal waves of the storm (that made me compare them to Lepage`s fabric of his  The Tempest, at the Met), the minimalism à la Peter Brook of the sticks in the Prologue and in the final entrée, the caricature of the travesty, the human comedy of the ballet at the end of the Prologue, Emilie`s good girl sarafan, the dancer in the flower pot and the real pop concert given by Zima in the final part. You must see all these, and let yourself be seduced, as you were seduced as a child by the list of attractions of the circus that just camped in your street. Let yourself be seduced, so that you can understand, so that you can enjoy yourself, after all, as a child.

The performance in Iași is 90% the performance from Palais Garnier, 13 years ago. If  The Flowers were presented only in fragments here (while complete in Paris), and the first and the second entrées switched places, I was surprised to notice that the show included the exceptional choreography signed by Blanca Li for the shows in 1999/2003. I was slightly afraid that it could be different in Iași and I sighed with relief when I realised I was going to see live the same dance scenes as in Paris. The idea of using elements of modern dance in a baroque opera worked marvels in Andrei Șerban`s concept. The intermezzi between entrées were the most amusing dance scenes I had ever seen and I surprised myself dancing and snapping my fingers on my way back to the hotel, just as the sailors taking Emilie and Valère back home…

Musical comments are superfluous. Even if I could remark some of the soloists, I will not do it, for the very simple reason that, today, music has returned to its origins, before any star system. From the orchestra to the last voice in the choir, everything was perfect.

This is Andrei Șerban’s childish enchantment. This is Romania’s gallantry, after 20 years: his returning, with (only) his second opera production in our country. How I wish Romania would stay so gallant from now on…

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