English Touring Opera, The Old Street Band, Jonathan Williams
Hackney Empire, 6 October 2017
I have been a little lukewarm about some previous English Touring Opera productions, but this staging of Rameau’s Dardanus ticked all the boxes. The first box tick comes for performing this work in the first place, an example of the adventurous approach to programming of the English Touring Opera and their first venture into the complex world of French Baroque opera. It formed part of their Hackney Empire opening to their autumn tour of the country, with Dardanus visiting Oxford, Buxton, Snape, Saffron Walden and Exeter. Its companion opera, Handel’s Giulio Cesare has a much larger tour, calling additionally at Portsmouth, Norwich, Durham, Bath, Keswick, and Great Malvern. Giulio Cesare, rather curiously, divided into two separate and overlapping, parts, under the titles of The Death of Pompey and Cleopatra’s Needle, with the last half hour of the first repeated at the start of the second, to the chagrin of some reviewers.
Dardanus is in the traditional Lullian form of a tragédie en musique with a prologue and five acts and a sizeable cast of dancers, unfortunately, omitted from this ETO production. It premiered at the Paris Opéra in November 1739 but was criticised because of the dramatic weakness of the libretto, particularly in the fanciful concluding acts. Rameau reworked the opera, rewriting the last three acts, in 1744, but it only received real success after its 1760 revival, again with further changes. Although this production is billed by ETO as the “first performance in the UK of the 1744 version“, that is not the case; the score (based on the European Opera Centre’s edition) contains elements of the 1744 and 1760 productions, together with some other editorial amendments, for example returning a couple of arias to their original length.
The plot is the usual nonsense, centred around Dardanus (Jupiter’s son) and his love for his enemy’s daughter Iphise, who is about to marry Antenor, the whole overlooked by the magician Isménor, and ending with the inevitable bout of clemency and mercy.
War is very much part of the myth, so it was perhaps inevitable that director Douglas Rintoul set the entire action in and around a war setting, modern, but thankfully unrecognisable as any of the current conflicts. In a pre-concert talk, Rintoul admitted never having directed an opera before, not being able to read music, not knowing anything about Rameau or French opera – or, indeed, any form of opera. Despite these not-entirely encouraging circumstances, his production was very successful, focused on the interplay between the protagonists without overdoing the directorial flights of fancy that I have worried about in some previous ETO productions. Another box tick, as was the set design of Cordelia Chisholm (also used for Giulio Cesare) and attractively fluid lighting from Mark Howland.
But the principal box ticks must go to the conductor Jonathan Williams, a French Baroque specialist (and founder of the Rameau Project) who very obviously knows his repertoire and clearly took his musical director role very seriously; to the top-notch Old Street Band of period instrumentalists, drawn from many of the usual suspects; and to a particularly strong singing and acting cast. The large original casting was reduced to six named roles (Anthony Gregory, Dardanus, Galina Averina, Iphise, Grant Doyle, Teucer, Timothy Nelson, Anténor, Frederick Long, Ismenor, Alessandro Fisher, Arcas) and a small chorus that also took on many of the minor roles, notably Eleanor Penfold as Venus. Although vibrato occasionally got in the way of the otherwise well-executed French Baroque ornaments, the singing was otherwise remarkably well executed in period style, bearing in mind the lack of experience in the French baroque idiom of many of the singers. Credit for this must go to the musical director and conductor Jonathan Williams and the ETOs head of music staff and assistant conductor Oliver John Ruthven.
A final box tick goes to the venue itself, the glorious Hackney Empire, built as a music hall in 1901.