Baroque French Opéra triumphs again: Jean-Christoph Cassanéa de Mondonville's 1753 opéra-ballet is utter delight, and - let me nail my colours to the mast here - a masterpiece. Never heard of the composer or the piece? You are almost certainly not alone, but you'll want to hear more after this.
Mondonville's opéra-ballet - also labelled "Pastorale héroïque" - Titon et l’Aurore was one of his most popular works, being held up as a triumph over the rival Italian style during the Parisian Querelle des Bouffons in the 1750's. The narrative of this spectacular piece follows the tumultuous and seemingly unbreakable liaison between the goddess L’Aurore and her lover the shepherd Titon. Jealous gods and goddesses try to interfere through murderous intent and dramatic abduction, but true love ultimately conquers all in stage director Basil Twist’s acclaimed feast for the senses.
Here's an interview with William Christie:
And here's an interview with Basil Twist, the director:
.. and here's a taster:
In the Prologue, Prometheus (the wonderful bass baritone Renato Dolicini) brings the clay statues of the gods to life using his fire (rather sweetly portrayed here as a single static (cardboard?) flame. His vocal dexterity is remarkable - but listen to Mondonville's music! It's energy is inefctious, and remains so for the duration of the remaining acts. The actual act of fire is depicted by red lighting adn a troupe of red dancers waving about like flames: meanwhile, Les Arts Florissants' playing is, er, on fire.
If you want to hear just how beautiful and profound Mondonville can be, listen to Titon's portrait of loneliness in his first air, "Que l'Aurore tarde à paraître"; Renaud van Mechelen is supremely expressive, and just listen to how the bassoon's line seems to underline his grief. He is dressed as the very epitome of a mortal shepherd. Gwendoline Blondeel is the perfect Aurore, light but feisty (and made to look like she appwars in a glistening bubble of light, rather like a fairy - Titon joins her in the bubble as they together ask love to reign in their souls). Yet she has the emotions for the second act, too (in which she is led to believe, by Aeolus, that Titon is dead).
I'll leave you to decide about the sheep; suffice it they are animated, they dance (there's the most amazing pas de deux, a pait of gavottes in Act II Scene 5), and at one point in the opéra, fly.
Soprano Julie Roset is Amour, her "Jeunes mortelles" from the second scene of the Prologue a light delight (and, in the statue puppets, we can see the producer's background in puppetry); and her ariette "Venez sous e riant feuillage" is the vvery definition of pastorale, with its flute/recorder twitterings (it's fun to watch the sheep's reactions, especiially when she does a trill).
Marc Mauillon plays Éole, God of the Winds (he comes complete with a set of flapping bedsheets). Éole is also in love with Aorore, and his anger aria calls on Palès, Goddess of shepherds, to kill Titon (she refuses, as she herself loves Titon also). Pelès herself is played by Emmanuelle de Negri, superb in her rage/vengeance aria ("Tu vas sentir les effets de ma rage!") that ends the second act.
Unlike many French opéras, this piece is in three acts, not five. In the third, Titon is affected by premature old age thanks to Palès; the trajectory of the final act is from this enforced decreptitude to the radiance of everlasting youthful love thanks to the intervention of Amor, who gifts them immortality. The billowy Éole's interactions with Palès in the earlier parts of this act are brilliantly dramatic; the passages of the "old man" Titon are remarkable: Mondonville sets this with an incredible musical frailty and fragility that is absolutely gripping. As is the staging of the arrival of Love: if you like glitter and sparkles, you'll like this.
It has to be said, van Mechelen's high register near the end ofthe piece needs to be heard to be believed: strong, sweet and very, very high (try about a minute or so before the chorus of triumph).
A fabulous performance of an opéra that is a real discovery. Try this: you won't regret it.Mondonville Titon (Bluray)Mondonville Titon (DVD)