The English Touring Opera has brought to this country, for the first time, Rameau’s 1744 Dardanus. This is the revised version, the ‘Critic’s Cut’, following the scathing reviews of the earlier 1739 Paris premiere. Entirely reworking the libretto of the final three acts, the later version of the work not only provides a narrative continuity that was previously lacking, but also allows for Rameau’s great ‘Lieux Funestes’ aria to be introduced in Act IV. The ETO has brought all this vividly to the stage with passionate lucidity.
The setting is supposedly Ancient Phrygia. This is moot however, and I’m sure most audience members (myself included) did not know whether it even existed or not. The French Baroque (the most ‘rock’ of all the baroques…) offers itself readily to grand interpretations, and the ETO has taken full advantage of this, radically contemporising their performance, discarding with much of the ‘ancient myth’ aspect. Khakied soldiers frequent the stage as much as our protagonists, somehow able to provide the comic relief whilst waving Kalashnikovs around and singing for the death of a tyrant. The Tiresian ‘wise old man’ character sits in a beaten-up armchair, wearing a hoodie, mixing potions in bottles of booze – if this were a student production he would inevitably be the archetypal pothead.
Yet a firm grip is retained on Rameau’s own influences. Behind the extensive sandpit that takes up most of the stage – a placement that, due to some of the more energetic scenes, those in the orchestra pit should perhaps have been consulted about – stands the dominating set structure that looms over the entire piece. The ossuary-like construction marries second-world brutalism with Piranesi’s Imagined Prisons. The exits to the wings are often sealed shut, and Dardanus is frequently left at the mercy of whatever may come through the upstage central gateway. In the original version, it would’ve been a sea monster; now, it is more likely a violent mob vying for his blood. Throughout the final three acts the word ‘Mort’ is left spray-painted on the gateway, a memento mori that deeply unsettles during the fifth act
This is, however, a romance, and not a tragedic one, despite the star-crossed nature of the piece. The opera opens with Iphise, daughter of King Teucer, lamenting the fact that she is in love with Dardanus, her father’s enemy. Galina Averina offers a passionate performance as Iphise, and her opening aria, surrounded by the boots and helmets of dead warriors, is one of the stand-out moments of the piece. This is, however, all too soon replaced by the chorus of the Phrygian army, demanding heroic victory in war in a set piece akin to that of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. It is this sequence of Act I, and a subsequent sequence involving a ‘magical-object-that-transforms-protagonist-into-someone-he-is-not’ in the somewhat Shakespearian Act II, that perhaps hints at the original critics’ misgivings. If the entire opera were simply made up of such drawn-out vignettes the potency of the music might be lost in the fragmented libretto. Director Douglas Rintoul however, in realising the potential of the 1744 version, offers a deeper and more subtle character study in the second half, and draws on the choral emotion to great effect. Perhaps the greatest statement for contemporisation is that distinguishing social rank from clothes becomes far more difficult, and the plights of royalty are interwoven with those of the Phrygian people.
Anthony Gregory’s vocals of the aforementioned ‘Lieux Funestes’ are a statement to emotive opera, dramatically played out on stage to much applause. Rameau’s music, conducted by Jonathan Williams, is ahead of its time, with keyboard leitmotifs akin to his best non-operatic work endowing the choruses with a charming humour, taken full advantage of by the performers. It is a work of high contrasts, and one could see how it would not have been out of place a hundred years later, at the height of French Romanticism.
Timothy Nelson’s role as the jealous Prince Antenor is especially poignant, and his death scene convincingly iterates the overarching ‘love triumphs war’ theme. Unlike in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, it is a victimless love that saves the day (people in Phrygia are quick to forget their murdered friends) and the finale slips politely into innocent “fun and play”. The ETO production leaves the audience inundated with morality and musical prowess, and this reviewer awaits their next operatic revival.
– Ben Britton
ALL IMAGES FROM: https://exeternorthcott.co.uk/calendar/dardanus/