"Flying the Flag/L'Amour" ,the catchy title of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Rameau programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The title concealed the treasures within, two rarely-heard Rameau pieces, Pigmalion and Anacréon. True to the spirit of Rameau's aesthetic, which lies in dance, the performance was realized by dancers from Les Plaisirs des Nations (choreographer Edith Lalonger). Both pieces are miniatures, far less exuberant than masterpieces like Castor et Pollux but for that very reason, we can appreciate the basis of Rameau's distinctive style.
Anacréon begins with a simple flourish : two coiled valveless horns (one possibly a genuine antique) evoke the kind of Arcadia which artists of the classical period delighted in painting. The horns are followed by high woodwinds, intensifying the dream-like atmosphere of ancient Greece seen through 18th century French imagination. In this landscape, Gods, mortals and animals frolic, in idealized fantasy. Chloé (Anna Dennis) and Batile (Augustin Prunell-Friend) cautiously declare their love for each other. However, Chloé is about to marry the famous poet Anacréon (Matthew Brook). She quite likes him but he's too amorous. Rameau's audiences would have cackled, since they had enough classical education to know that Anacréon, though revered, was a drunk and a lecher. Rameau suggests Anacréon's earthiness with lines that descend in almost ostinato: an old roué drooping because he's in his cups. "Regnez, Regnez" sings Matthew Brook, like the god Bacchus, the lord of misrule. "I live in the moment" he sings. Instead of the deep reflection one might expect from Wagner, or the florid intensity of Verdi, Rameau's Anacréon watches the dancers do their routines, and thus satisfied, lets Batile and Chloé find true love. Augustin Prunell-Friend sings Batile's long showpiece, which consists mainly of the lines "Let fly, arrows of love, into our souls" but is so beautifully decorated that it makes perfect sense. (The photo above is a 19th century French painting of Anacréon,with his lute with a hairless Pan and cupids - try staging that now)
The parade of dancers thus operates as plot device, which wouldn't be quite so obvious on audio-only recording. Why are the dancers dressed (vaguely) as Turks or Hindus? Baroque audiences were fascinated by exotic cultures. If people from strange places could do strange things, then why not have them inject another level of fantasy into the proceedings? Pan the god appears, half-man, half-goat, complete with little red horns like the devil. Pan was the god of music, but also of sensuality and dangerous wild spaces. Bacchus appears, too, an old man with a wreath of grapevine. Gods, men and animals mix in joyous confusion : anything can happen in the creative imagination. In Anacréon, we can see, in germ, the exuberance and creative good humour William Christie found in Les Indes Galantes, Les Paladins and Hippolyte et Aricie The true, adventurous spirit of the age!
Williams and the OAE aren't quite in that league of brilliance, but they performed a new edition of Rameau's 1754 version of Anacréon, compiled by Dr Jonathan Williams, who conducted. Their recording of this "new" Anacréon is the first in the market.
In April this year, Williams and the OAE performed Rameau's Zaïs, also danced by members of Les Plaisirs des Nations. Please see my review HERE. Pigmalion dates from 1748, as did Zaïs, but the plot's even thinner. It's a metaphor fpor the power of artistic imagination. This isn't necessarily a disadvantage, since it means we can focus on the structure and on the role of dance. Pigmalion (Daniel Auchincloss) is a sculptor who has fallen in love with a Statue (Katherine Manley). Pigmalion's lover, Céphise (Susanna Hurrell) calls on the gods for help. Unfortunately, L' Amour (Venus, sung by Anna Dennis) feels sorry for Pigmalion and turns the statue into a woman. Everyone's happy, except Céphise, who disappears. Rameau writes a rollicking good chorus singing about the joys of love. Is it ironic that a composer so given to energy and movement would write a piece where the love interest is an inanimate object? Again, the sheer vivacity of the music makes anything seem possible. Three dancers depict the Three Graces, artistic creations born like the Statue fully mature and whole..Although in classical art, the Three Graces, and most statues were shown naked, or semi-naked in Grecian drapes, Nudity might have been authentic but Rameau and his audiences used their imaginations. The Three Graces appear in outfits which would have been contemporary in Rameau's time, and Katherine Manley wears an evening gown.
Most of the action happens not in sung text but in abstract music. Sequence after sequence of dance figures: I lost count after ten. These probably illustrate specific dance forms, some pastoral, some lively, some almost militaristic. The patterns in which the dancers move reflect the patterns in the music, as if the abstract forms in music are being made visible. For all his exuberant effervescence, Rameau was a superb craftsman. His Traité de l'harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels was one of the first great treatises on the theory of music. Rameau's mind reflected the clarity and precision so dear to the Enlightenment.