Stage Director: Opera-Theatre-Musicals
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By Kim Klein
1 August 2003, Redludwig.com
In his prime, the Baroque composer and theorist, Jean-Philippe Rameau, (1683-1764) was probably the most famous living musician in France. Yet within a few years of his death, a shift in Parisian operatic taste to Italian opera buffa, followed by the European-wide triumph of classicism, led to Rameau’s rapid eclipse.
Today, Rameau’s sun is re-emerging, and on this side of the Atlantic, Kim Pensinger Witman is one of those most enthusiastically flinging back the curtains of obscurity. In July, as general manager of the Wolf Trap Opera Company, she fulfilled her dream to give Rameau’s fifth opera, Dardanus, its North American professional premiere at the 352-seat theater known as the Barns of Wolf Trap, in a rural suburb outside Washington, D.C. Neither she, the singers nor the production team had ever actually seen a performance of the opera. With only a couple of brief stagings in France in the last quarter century, probably no one in the audience had seen it either.
“You’re all part of the Rameau revival,” declared Witman, in one of the well-attended, lively lectures she offered before each of the three performances of Dardanus as part of her mission on the composer’s behalf. She added, “I must give you two personal warnings: First, I am not an expert – I operate in the operatic mainstream. Secondly, I am pathologically fond of this music.”
The audience could expect to see Rameau’s flamboyant first version of the opera, staged in 1739, with a powerful lament sung by the title character, lifted from the composer’s more realistic 1744 re-write (Rameau took the opinions of his critics seriously). The production added some of Rameau’s ballet music for good measure, but cut the Prologue, peopled by the deities of Mount Olympus. The plot is a sort of prequel to the founding of ancient Troy by Dardanus, who initially loses battles and the woman he secretly loves but has the good fortune to have Jupiter as his father. A loyal sorcerer and a vanquished sea monster allow the hero to triumph.
Earlier, in an interview with Redludwig.com, the day after opening night, Witman talked about the hurdles and risks she faced when she entrusted Dardanus’ operatic rebirth to a summer repertory company. Never mind that Baroque cognoscenti might yearn to see a performance of Dardanus by early music ensembles such as Les Musiciens du Louvre or Les Arts Florissants, who have already recorded or presented Rameau’s operas. “Our mission, since 1971, has been to provide a training ground for young American singers, in the operatic mainstream,” she explained. Still, the Wolf Trap company had successfully staged Italian Baroque opera. Witman felt it was time to introduce the French equivalent. “I was particularly drawn to Dardanus as a possible venue if I could find the right voices, and the right talent. As a lyric tragedy it did not have to rely too much on elaborate staging and spectacle, since The Barns is not equipped for that.
“But the voices, especially for the men, were going to be the hard ones to assemble. The hero, Dardanus is a high tenor, Iphise, his beloved, is a high lyric mezzo while the three low males voices, two basses and a baritone, require an incredible range. In a single phrase the range in pitch may very as much as an entire role in some other opera.” Witman could not deliberately seek out singers who would be ideal for French Baroque. Developing the most promising artists came before her visions for under-appreciated repertoire. Biding her time, Witman, continued to travel across the United States with one of the company’s coaches, on the annual Wolf Trap audition trek . This year they had to choose sixteen singers from over five hundred applicants.
“We choose the singers first then base our ‘rep’[repertoire] on the voices we have selected. By the first of the year we have to decide on three operas and two concerts. Then the production staff spend the next six months putting it together. We have very little lead time.” Summer 2003 proved to be the year when all the components fell into place for Dardanus. Witman had signed up not only the vocal range but “singers who could make this leap” into the unfamiliar repertoire, style and language of the French Baroque. It was also “quite a leap of faith in me, when I told them ‘You are Teucer’ or ‘You will be Anténor’.” Quite by chance, Marie Lenormand, who sings Iphise, was born in France and so her French was “a little bonus.” For the other singers, Witman says, with an almost maternal pride, “French was a journey to be made. They met the challenge, they caught up. Marie set a standard the way having dancers on stage set a physical standard that made the singers reach even higher ” in all that they did.
Witman also lucked out in her production staff. Director Chuck Hudson, fluent in French, had trained with and become a close associate of renowned mime Marcel Marceau and was also an expert in stage combat. Australian-born Walker had wide Baroque choral experience and a CD of a Rameau suite. Since The Barns did not lend itself to elaborate staging, Witman put energy into securing authentic music and dance. Her musicians, with a core from a skilled local ensemble, the Violins of Lafayette, played period instruments or modern copies. Singers even rehearsed with a harpsichord, not a piano. Witman called on Catherine Turocy, who heads the New York Baroque Dance Company, to supply original choreography, based on Baroque movements, as well as four professional dancers.
With all this striving for authenticity, did Witman’s production team aim for a totally baroque look? “No, we did not try to make it a 1739 production. It is set in Greek mythological times, not 1739 . We did not attempt to reproduce the stage demeanor of that time, either. You can make this transition if you are honest and true to it.” Exchanges between lovers – both scorned and welcomed – are enacted with affecting realism. Other scenes emphasize stylized movement by the young women in their draped chitons, or the energetic patterns of wielded spears by the men in short fighting tunics and armor. The Barns, which is indeed a converted farm building, precluded “gee whizz” stage effects so, at certain moments the production opted not to take itself too seriously. A brassy goddess of love owed more to Mae West than Venus de Milo and the sea monster was a dragon escapee from a Chinese New Year parade. A riskier dramatic anachronism was the Saint Sebastian stance given to Dardanus, as he sang the moving Lieux funestres tied to a pillar, stripped to the waist, with the illusion of arrows protruding from his body.
The great test, for Witman and her cast, was presenting the opera to a live audience. No one had any idea what to expect. Initially, the young singers could not gauge how the audience was taking the opera. Scene after scene unfolded with no perceptible reaction from the other side of the footlights, while the singers anxiously waited for the validation of applause. Witman however, was not in the wings. From the floor of the house, she observed the invited dress rehearsal crowd, and the opening night audience. “When I sit in the audience I’m watching the people around me, not the stage.” Witman could see that the listeners were totally engaged with what was happening on stage. She came to realize that Rameau’s music was so dramatically seamless that there were no built-in opportunities for applause. She observed, “Rameau’s style morphs … it chains one moment to another It can go on for half an hour without a perceptible break.” At the end of each act, the clapping was wildly enthusiastic.
After the early performances, Witman sought out “musically savvy people.” To her relief and delight, she talked with men and women who had come to see the opera out of curiosity, and declared that “even though we didn’t do any homework, we found it very entertaining.” Witman paused for a moment, before closing the interview, wondering if this was something to be proud of because “entertaining’ usually implies ‘fluff.” Then she said it again with the conviction that this was the final word she wanted on Dardanus:
“Ultimately, it’s very entertaining.”
1 August 2003