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<em>Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques</em>, Royal College of Music
09 Apr 2017

Rameau's Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques: a charming French-UK collaboration at the RCM

Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.

Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, Royal College of Music

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Laure Poissonnier (Amour)

Photo credit: Studio J'Adore Ce Que Vous Faites


When Les fêtes d'Hébé appeared in 1739 Rameau was at the height of creative powers and popularity. Masterpieces such asHippolyte et Aricie, Les Indes galantes and Castor et Pollux had flowed from his pen in the preceding few years, and Les fêtes d'Hébé was one of his most acclaimed works during his lifetime, receiving nearly 400 performances after its premiere, before gradually fading from the repertory following the composer’s death in 1764.

It seems incredible, therefore, that Les fêtes d'Hébé has not previously been staged in the UK. All credit, then, to the combined forced of the Royal College of Music, the Académie de l’Opéra national de Paris, and the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles for bringing Rameau’s charming, colourful ‘entertainment’ to London for the first time.

Les fêtes d'Hébé presents considerable challenges, though, and not all the outcomes were successful. First, the ‘tale’ Rameau tells is slight, the three parts hanging together by the slenderest of threads. Hébé, the goddess of youth cupbearer of the gods, is bored with life on Olympus and irritated by the unwanted amorous advances of Momus. So, with her retinue of Graces, she wings it down to earth in search of other delights, alighting on the banks of the Seine, where Cupid advises her to mount a spectacle in celebration of the three talens: ‘la poésie’, ‘la musique’ and ‘la danse’.

(And, indeed, where better than the environs of L’Opéra to enjoy such ‘talents’, for in the early eighteenth century, with the Revolution still fifty years away, this Parisian institution remained the preferred gathering place for high society and intellectuals, and a symbol of the glory of the French monarchy.)

So, much like the English masque, the opera-ballet has no plot worth mentioning but lots of visual spectacle and flamboyance together with elaborately engineered stage effects. Can the refined aesthetic of the eighteenth century - the highly ornamented and stylised cadences, the gentle artifice, the convoluted ‘narrative’ - be made appealing to twenty-first-century audiences?

James Atkinson, Eleanor Penfold, Joel Williams (c) st…e vous faites.jpg James Atkinson, Eleanor Penfold, Joel Williams. Photo credit: Studio J'Adore Ce Que Vous Faites.

With a budget considerably less than that enjoyed by François Boucher when he supervised the set designs at the Palais-Royal theatre in 1739, Thomas Lebrun (director, set designer and choreographer), Françoise Michel (lighting designer) and Laurianne Scimemi Del Francia (costume design) went for a minimalist, colour-themed approach, bathing each of the acts in a single hue - blue, yellow and red - and adding some bucolic projections. The result was stylish and clean, but not particularly helpful in terms of communicating who was who and what they were doing as they repeatedly and randomly moved small white blocks about the stage. The cast is large and the singers and dancers reappear in different roles. It all looked pretty but I didn’t have much idea what was going on.

Lebrun’s choreography was fairly abstract but lithely danced and not unappealing. It didn’t seem designed to serve a ‘dramatic’ function, though. The modern idiom was also somewhat at odds with the musical aesthetic, in a work in which dance, song and choruses come and go with integrated fluidity. Some of the abundant dance numbers are adapted from harpsichord pieces Rameau had previously published and the music is ravishing. One can agree with Charles Burney who wrote in 1789, ‘More genius and invention appears in the dances of Rameau than elsewhere, because in them, there is a necessity for motion, measure, and symmetry of phrase.’ However, Lebrun did place the ballet, particularly in Terpsichore’s final apotheosis of the art of dance, at the heart of the entertainment, and sequences such as that which accompanied the Oracle’s announcement of Tyrtaeus’ victory in the second act were absorbing.

Andres Villalobos as Palemon (Oboe).jpg Andres Villalobos as Palemon (Oboe). Photo credit: Studio J'Adore Ce Que Vous Faites.

The original cast comprised some of the greatest French singers of the period, and the vocal performances here confirmed that there is a lot of talent in the conservatoires of France and the UK. Rameau’s vocal writing is elegant, expressive and well-placed for the singers if rather lacking in variety and range of character. On the whole the soloists coped well with the curlicues and artifice though inevitably they struggled to imbue much depth into the characterisation. Adriana Gonzalez displayed a rich, plump soprano as Sapho/Iphise while Pauline Texier soared smoothly at the top as Hébé in the Prologue and was an engaging Églé in the final Act, wooing Juan de Dios Mateos’ arrogant Mercury with charming persistence. Tenor Joel Williams revealed an alluring voice as Oracle/a stream (there’s a part for ‘a river’ too …), and Eleanor Penfold, a Naiad, joined him in a delightful duet in Act 1 during a fête galante mounted by Sapho to celebrate their reunion. Tomasz Kumiega displayed a sure sense of the style. The French chorus (directed by Olivier Schneebeli) were terrific.

Conductor Jonathan Williams pushed things along at quite a lick, sometimes at the expense of the intonation and the insistent pace could not have aided the singers’ efforts to inject some depth into their roles. Moreover, pastoral needs a little more languor; and the small string section of the Royal College of Music Baroque Orchestra inevitably could not summon the richness that Rameau’s original audiences must have enjoyed.

Can a modern audience be made to care about the amorous shenanigans of Sapho, Iphise and Mercury, or be absorbed by injustices and restorations among mythical kings and deities? Probably not. The French baroque opéra-ballet is an acquired taste and one not naturally suited to modern palettes. But, this ambitious production offered visual and aural enjoyment and the three collaborating institutions should be lauded for their efforts and for bringing Les fêtes d'Hébé to life.

Claire Seymour

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Les fêtes d'Hébé

Hébé/Églé - Pauline Texier, Sapho-Iphise - Adriana Gonzalez, Amour/Cupid - Laure Poissonnier, Momus/Lycurgus - Jean-François Marras, Thelemus/Mercury - Juan de Dios Mateos, Hymas/Tyrtaeus - Mikhail Timoshenko, Alcaeus/Eurilas - Tomasz Kumiega, A stream/A shepherdess - Julieth Lozano, Naiad/A shepherdess - Eleanor Penfold, Oracle/A stream - Joel Williams, A river - James Atkinson, Dancers - Karima El Amrani, Antoine Arbeit, Maxime Camo, Lucie Gemon, Léo Scher, Julien-Henri Vu Van Dung; Director/Set Designer/Choreographer - Thomas Lebrun, Lighting Designer - Françoise Michel, Costume Designer - Laurianne Scimemi Del Francia, Royal College of Music Baroque Orchestra, Les Chantres, singers of the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles (director Olivier Schneebeli).

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London; Thursday 6th April 2017.

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