Rameau: Pigmalion

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Pigmalion
Dunedin Consort, John Butt
Spitalfields Music Festival, Christchurch Spitalfields
Online premiere, Tuesday 6 July

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pigmalion is an acte de ballet first performed in August 1748 at the Opéra in Paris to a libretto by Ballot de Sauvot. It was apparently composed within a week at the request of the management as a means of raising much needed revenue. It has since become one of Rameau’s finest one-act works, although performances are rare. It is based on the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Pigmalion falls in love with the beautiful female statue he has just sculpted, to the chagrin of his fiancée Céphise. Pigmalion pleads with L’Amour (the goddess Venus) to bring the statue to life. As the statue comes to life and learns to sing and dance, Cupid arrives and praises Pigmalion for his artistry, followed by dancing and singing in praise of the power of love. Cupid helps Céphise to find a more appropriate lover.

As the Spitalfields Music’s promotional blurb suggested, Rameau’s opera “feels very much of our times, exploring themes of love, narcissism, gender, creative genius, power and image culture”. The Ouverture was something of an innovation in that, rather than being plot-neutral as most were, it specifically reflects the hammering of Pigmalion’s hammer on the emerging statue. The overture to Zaïs, also from 1748, similarly depicts the world’s creation. Rameau’s status as a theorist is evident in the construction of the piece, with its lengthy monologue recitatives (which merge into quasi-arias) allowing for a rich foundation of harmonies and musical reflections of the text. Structurally, it is a slow build, with the story unfolding through ornamented melodic lines over continuo bass or subdued orchestral writing. Only after the statue comes alive do things liven up, musically, with the sequence of little dance movements.

French opera, of which this 45′ acte de ballet, is a miniature example, is complicated to perform. The musical forces of the time were often enormous, with quadruple woodwind and massed strings. Added to these were large chorus and up to 40 dancers. Dance is crucial to French opera of the Baroque period, specifically so in the case of a piece with the title of acte de ballet. Staging was similarly expansive. This performance was, frustratingly, shorn of all these aspects, being, in effect, a concert performance with held scores, but without the music stands. A massively missed opportunity.

Musically it was excellent, with fine playing and singing from the reduced forces of the excellent Dunedin Consort, with deft direction from the harpsichord by John Butt. The title role was sung by Nicholas Mulroy, his light and delicate high tenor coming as close as a British singer is likely to get to a French haute contre, to which he added exemplary shaping and shading of the notes and perceptive ornamentation. Similarly outstanding was Zöe Brookshaw as the statue. Anna Dennis was L’Amour and Hilary Cronin, Céphise. All were alive to the niceties of French Baroque vocal and instrumental performance practice. Amongst the many musical highlights was the striking harmonic shift from G major to an evocatively exotic E major chord, to which Pigmalion responds “Where are those chords coming from .. what harmonious sounds”, just before the statue comes to life.

Also credited were Rowdy SS as “creative director”, Claricia Parinussa as “performance artist”, and Rebecca Bellantoni as “sound-text”. The contribution of these three was minimal. There was spoken “sound-text” at the beginning (“Love has entered”) and end (“We have replaced each other’s eyes. Love is now, love is past.”) spoken from the side aisle of the church, and some very brief appearances of a black clad, masked figure covered in tinsel in the side gallery who gently gyrated on her own. But there was nothing that I would consider dancing in any real sense of the word. The bulk of the normally spectacular dance sequence was left to the orchestra alone.

The Dunedin Consort were positioned underneath the famous organ of Christchurch, Spitalfields, socially distanced in an otherwise empty church. With so many dancers and musicians effectively out of work for the past year or more, this could have been a fabulous opportunity to try and recreate something of the spectacle of French Baroque opera whilst also provided some much need job opportunities to musicians and dancers.

The event will be screened in the Genesis Cinema on Sunday 11 July, 10.30am. Booking details here.