In this interesting production by Robert Carsen the Boreades, the people of the North Wind, dressed and buttoned up in expensive coats and accessories, are a workaholic, Protestant (as conductor William Christie explains in the bonus documentary) cold climate culture, and the Queen’s unsuitable suitor Abaris and his folk, later turning out to be Apollo’s geniture, clad in white Mediterranean rags, not adverse to far niente and nudity. It’s a visually attractive and consistently elegant production with, usual for the Carsen-Van Praet tandem, outstanding lighting design, but it’s not a terribly exciting production. The story is simple–the Queen of the Boreades ought to marry one of the two suitors arranged for her, but she most inconveniently loves somebody from another tribe. The vocabulary of the production is simple too, and once you pick it up, nothing that ensues will surprise. It’s a flawless exercise in beauty, within a very limited design vocabulary.
Christie and Carsen have decided to keep all the dance sequences and put Montrealers Edouard Lock and La La La Human Steps in charge of the elaborate and energetic pseudo-Classical choreographies.
Barbara Bonney as the Queen Alphise gets surprisingly few solo arias — just two — but they are stand-alone works of art, especially the first one with sobbing staccato breaking of the phrasing. Paul Agnew as her illegit sweetheart gets many more opportunties to impress. Other male voices are also well used (Toby Young and Stephane Degout as the two suitors, Nicolas Rivenq as both the priest of Apollo and Apollo himself, Laurent Naouri who comes in in the final act as Borée).
Highly recommended is The Making of… documentary in DVD’s Bonus Materials. All the principals are interviewed and all have something substantial to say. Christie, Carsen and Bonney in particular underline how radical this opera was in its understanding of gender. Decades before the French revolution, the French absolutist court watched this opera in which a woman is fighting for her freedom to love and refuse a raison d’État marriage. There’s a poignant if short sequence in praise of la liberté in the opera, sung by another woman, a nymph. Bonney and Christie in the documentary remind how important this is: a female subject, by fighting for her own liberty, is advancing universal citizen freedom.
I couldn’t find Bonney’s aria that I liked so much, but here’s a representative sequence instead: