Baroque that rocks! is the title of a documentary film by Reiner E. Moritz that accompanies this Opus Arte DVD production of Jean-Philippe Rameau's (1683-1764) penultimate masterwork Les Paladins, inspired by a fable by La Fontaine. Described as a Comedie lyrique in three acts and composed in 1760 when Rameau was 77, it blended reality and the surreal even before director Jose Montalvo and choreographers Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu began their efforts to bring this Baroque masterpiece before a 21st Century audience. Watching this ingenious blend of 18th Century French Opera and ultramodern technology, dancing, multi-screen films and imaginative staging is like wandering through a wormhole in spacetime. All times between are bypassed and only those slivers of spacetime that correspond to 1760 and the present - the entrance and exit points through this artistic portal - are allowed to coexist. And coexist they do; modern dance, film and a plethora of strange activity reflect or comment upon what occurs on stage. One inhabits two worlds simultaneously and it takes some getting used to. Dancers utilize old school breakdancing, hip-hop, West Indian, African and urban street moves, all superbly choreographed by Ms. Hervieu. Multiple screens doubling as multiple stage doors present a profusion of films frequently incorporating stage performers so that they interact with their virtual selves and others; they are constantly morphing into animals, birds, butterflies and statuary of various shapes and sizes. Balloons float across the stage as props, a trampoline is utilized as an apt metaphor for love's flight. Castles and gardens appear and disappear as needed via film and image projections. And all this time, like a heart that refuses to falter, a magnificent Opera persists onstage and in the pit, sublimely played and gorgeously sung.
Words alone cannot describe the visual dimension of this wondrously realized production. However, the predominantly youthful singing and dancing stars of this Opera, filmed live in May 2004 at the Theatre du Chatelet Paris, are ultimately the real reason for its success. They are wonderful, providing talent and energy in abundance. The plot of Les Paladins revolves around love. The old Anselme loves (and imprisons) the young Argie who loves the young Atis. The various struggles to requite love (including a maid Nerine and a gaoler named Orcan) make up the bulk of the story. Thankfully, an illustrated synopsis on the first disc is quite helpful in explaining what's what. Handsome Topi Lehtipuu as Atis is marvelous with a beautiful lyric tenor voice, perfectly trained for Baroque Opera. His tone and diction are crystalline. He can act and he can dance, too. All of the cast are required to dance as well as act their roles. Beautiful Stephanie d'Oustrac plays Argie. Hers is a lyric soprano voice that matches her statuesque Gallic beauty. She spends most of the Opera wandering around in shorts and knee-stockings looking sexy and sad. Orcan is Laurent Naouri and Nerine is Sandrine Piau. All the singers and dancers (and there must be more than 60) are excellent.
William Christie is a master of the French Baroque. Conducting his period instruments group Les Arts Florissants, he brings Rameau's deliberately shocking score to life. It is suggested that Rameau, at 77 years of age and with several successful Operas on his resume, wanted to create a splash following the notorious "War of the Buffons" that had roiled Parisian musical life the previous two years. He unleashes a fireworks display of musical ideas: every instrumental trick he knew (and he knew plenty), strange, abrupt meter changes, odd sounds and even extensive parodies of himself. His score is pristine and coarse by turns. Rhythmical in the extreme, Les Paladins is definitely unthinkable without extensive dancing. Debates about the nature of this production may be answered by the evidence provided by it's artistic success. It works.
This opera contains some nudity, most of it very discrete. Be forewarned if nudity is a problem. I am opposed to the gratuitous use of nudity but here it is integral to the plot and the larger design of the work. The film is in color and shot in 16/9 anamorphic widescreen. It is crystal clear. Sound is both LPCM stereo and 5.0 DTS Digital Surround (there is no separate subwoofer track). On higher-end A/V systems there is a significant difference between the two, with DTS providing greater presence, a larger illusion of space in the soundfield and a sense of "liveness" I have found in none of the other formats (including Dolby 5.1). Lower-end systems may not reveal much difference. The sound on this DVD enhances the "live" nature of the program. There are 2 discs and their playing time is 204 minutes. The region code is NTSC all regions. Menus are in English, French and German and there are the usual 5 subtitle languages. Extras include the Illustrated Synopsis, a Cast Gallery and the documentary "Baroque that rocks!". There is an excellent 36 page booklet in English, French and German that contains superb notes including the original story by La Fontaine.
This is a superb DVD and I strongly recommend it to open-minded lovers of Baroque Opera.