Jean-Philippe Rameau: Dardanus
OperaVera, IstanteCollective, Jonathan Williams
Heath Street Baptist Church, Hampstead. 3 May 2019
Under the banner of “Early music and home-made food” the now annual Baroquestock festival in Hampstead’s Heath Street Baptist Church set off on a week of music and food with a delightfully ambitious concert-performance of Rameau’s opera Dardanus. This is part of conductor Jonathan Williams’ Rameau Project and follows a fully staged 2017 performance that he conducted for English Touring Opera. This was a wonderful opportunity to hear French Baroque opera, an unfortunate rarity in Handel-dominated UK opera circles. On this occasion, we had the privilege of being able to concentrate on the music itself, without the distraction of staging, scenery, costume, or directorial interference. The intimacy of the Heath Street church, combined with an impressive acoustic to make for a very different, and very welcome, alternative to the full-blown opera house experience. Further Baroquestock events this week (under the overall title of ‘Fine Lines’) include Mozart & Haydn with Royal Tiramisu, BeerBachFocaccia, a Jacket Potato Ceilidh, a Zelenka marathon, and folk music.
Rameau’s tragédie en musique was first performed in 1739 with little success and was revised several times. This performance was based substantially on the 1744 version, with some elements from the successful 1760 revision to the final two Acts. As Dr Alessandra Palidda explained in her pre-event talk, this was originally composed and staged in sumptuous fashion with a variety of special effects, and large orchestra and chorus and a sizeable corps de ballet.
The plot is centred around the mythical figure of Dardanus, the son of Zeus/Jupiter, founder of Troy and remembered today (if at all) by the Dardanelles Strait separating Europe from Asia in present-day Turkey. Rameau’s opera is based on Dardanus’s love for his former captive Iphise, the daughter of his enemy Teucer who has promised her to Anténor, a general in his army. The intervention of the magician Isménor aids the plot, which ends with the inevitable bout of clemency and mercy as Teucer and Dardanus making peace and Dardanus marries Iphise to a blessing from Venus ‘descending from the heavens’.
The singers were drawn from OperaVera stable, a company offering young professional singers the chance to perform grand opera in its original language. Key singers were Ed Saklatvala in the title role, his pleasingly high tenor perhaps not entirely achieving the unique timbre of the French haute contre, but certainly very close to it in his high register. Soprano Susan Jiwey sang the part of Iphise with a fine sense of the vocal drama of the role. The two of them are pictured above, along with bits of principal bassoonist Inga Maria Klaucke who, along with Catriona McDermid, had a very prominent role in Rameau’s distinctive instrumentation. My favoured singer on this occasion was baritone Ashley Mercer in the role of Antenor, his vocal sensitivity was enlivened by the only real attempt at subtly acting the role from all of the cast. Fellow baritone Peter Brooke sang the two roles of Teucer and Ismenor.
Subsidiary roles were sung by Katy Thomson (Une Phyrigienne), Richard Robbins (Arcas), and the impressive soprano Bea Acland who dominated the final scene as Venus. Two or three additional singers joined the chorus, singing from the sides of the church or the pulpit, into which Venus eventually descended from heaven. 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 most UK-based. Credit for this must go to the musical director and conductor Jonathan Williams, a specialist in this field.
The 21 instrumentalists of the IstanteCollective were on top form, despite some pretty cramped conditions on the small stage area. Cellist Kate Conway (pictured above right) and harpsichordist Satoko Doi-Luck deserve special mention for providing continuo support throughout, with Kate Conway also having a number of prominent flourishes. As is the case in most French Baroque music, the two bassoonists (Inga Maria Klaucke & Catriona McDermid) were prominent, both in a continuo bass role and in several independent melodic roles and some virtuosic contributions to the lively Tambourins that concluded Act 3.
As well as his technical and musical experience in this repertoire, conductor Jonathan Williams also impressed me with his conducting style, clear and precise and willing to let his fellow musicians just get on with it at appropriate times.