by Steven Pisano
William Christie founded Les Arts Florissants in 1979 as a way to celebrate his love of Baroque music from the 1700s, and for the last forty years he and his fellow musicians have been performing and recording music on original period instruments that had not always been played much before. Much of this music was written for the royal family of France.
At the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend, Les Arts Florissants is presenting two rarely performed opera-ballets by Jean-Philippe Rameau, "Daphnis et Egle" from 1753, and "La Naissance d'Osiris" from 1754. Both works were originally performed for the royal court of King Louis XV at his summer palace at Fontainebleau outside Paris, where the royal family went on hunting expeditions.
For New York audiences accustomed to the cutting-edge, very modern productions that BAM is deservedly known for, this blast into the past takes a little bit of getting used to. The music by Rameau does not immediately impress the ear. It is very pretty to listen to, but a far cry from the masterworks of the soon-to-come classical period (Mozart, Rossini, etc.) But as a chance to enjoy music from the Baroque, by such a top-flight ensemble, this opportunity should not be missed.
"Daphnis et Eglis" tells the gentle story of a man and a woman who think they are just good friends, but then are told by the High Priest of the temple that actually they are in love, not just friends. Cupid, of course, makes an appearance with a rustic wooden bow and arrow. "La Naissance d'Osiris" is about the birth of the god Osiris, celebrated by the peasants and shepherds of Thebes. Both works are technically operas, the story told through not only the music but through songs. But they are not operas in the grand sense. The music is more tied to dancing than to a strong narrative. In the eighteenth century, singers danced and dancers sang. It was all part of the show.
Belgian tenor Reinoud van Mechelen was excellent as Daphnis, his voice strong and pure. Soprano Elodie Fonnard also sang very sweetly, and brought a bright presence to the stage. Soprano Magali Leger was very playful as Cupid. Also putting in appealing performances were Sean Clayton, Cyril Costanzo, and Francois Lis. The ensemble was good at the country dances they performed, but like the music, this is gentle, country dancing, not sophisticated ballet choreography as would be developed a century later.