In March of last year, an operatic event in Paris sent shock waves through the international arts scene, but barely made a ripple in Canada. The production was so riotously received in Paris, that one evening the audience had to be reprimanded by the Maestro for their behaviour. The New Yorkers, on the other hand, chose to cheer instead of rage and heralded the opera as a triumphant success. The opera was “Les Boreades”, a Baroque masterpiece by Jean-Philippe Rameau. The twist — contemporary dancers among the divas. The creators of this fusion of arts and ensuing madness — Canadians.
And herein lies the conundrum. How is it that three Canadian artists came together at Paris’ Opera Garnier to bring their vision of Rameau’s “Les Boreades” to the stage, and yet, only a whisper of their wild success reached Canada?
Canadians rattle Opera Garnier
The artists behind the magnificent, albeit controversial, staging of “Les Boreades” are producer/director Robert Carsen, originally from Toronto, production designer Michael Levine also from Toronto, and Montréal’s Édouard Lock, director and choreographer of La La La Human Steps. Together the three fiercely answered world-renowned conductor William Christie’s cry for the resurrection of this Baroque gem. Carsen, Levine and Lock created a production of “Les Boreades” that shocked, stunned, appalled, excited and thrilled audiences from Paris’s Garnier to New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music.
But here in Canada, where we frequently measure the success of our artists by their international acclaim, the achievement of these Canadians in melding creative staging, stunning sets and lightning speed contemporary dance, has not been justly celebrated.
Boldness in imagination
Carsen, Lock and Levine boldly faced and surmounted the challenge of interpreting a traditional Baroque opera for a twenty-first-century audience, bringing to the stage a visual experience of extraordinary colour and energy.
The flowers were one foot high. The leaves were twice as big as your hand; snow drifted and summer rain pelted down. Under the daring vision of Carsen and Levine, the seasons exploded onto the stage as if borne by the tempestuous demeanour of the gods. Powerfully carrying the story of love and conflict that is the heart of “Les Boreades”, the chorus and leads of Les Arts Florissants complemented Lock’s La La La Human Steps, bringing together dance and opera in striking combination.
As observed in the “Financial Times” on June 11th, 2003, “&Carsen insists on giving Rameau’s very old opera a brazen new look. It shouldn’t work, but it does.”
As a dancer with La La La Human Steps, I had the opportunity to take part in “Les Boreades” and was astounded to find so many Canadians at work in the halls of this world-famous Parisian theatre. The wild public reaction following the premiere in Paris secretly delighted me. Intrigued, I decided to learn what inspired these three Canadian artists to answer Maestro Christie’s cry.
Explaining his controversial modern approach, Carsen muses, “The theatre isn’t a museum; we go to the theatre to find something we don’t know.” A veteran of most of the best-known stages from the Met in New York to La Scala in Milan, Carsen has done little work in Canada by comparison, and is currently staging his fifth production for the Opera Garnier. He took a risk with his presentation of “Les Boreades”, but believed passionately in the final outcome. Standing tall against the wild chorus of cheers and taunts, for performance after performance of “Les Boreades” at Opera Garnier Carsen remained dignified and composed.
Levine’s costume and stage designs for “Les Boreades” were breathtaking. He dressed the cast of eighty in 1940s Dior-chic couture, the structured silhouettes paying homage to Baroque fashion while melding the present with an era sixty years past. Inspired by the fluidity of a dance piece, yet bound to the roots of classical fashion, Levine designed his costumes so that the artists would not have to “slave around under heavy Baroque coats.” In keeping with the conflicts found in “Les Boreades” of good and evil, light and dark, love and hate, Levine alternatively dressed the cast in wispy white nothings, as though they had “just woken up on a Sunday morning at home with their lover nearby.”
As a production designer, Michael Levine has worked extensively in North America, Europe and Asia and is presently working on Wagner’s “Die Walküre” for the Canadian Opera Company. Levine felt there was something specifically Canadian in his approach to the stage design for “Les Boreades”. No stranger to the extremes of weather, Levine “understands the beauty of snow, if you have seen what snow can do.” More snow fell on the stage during this production than I have seen in all my years of Nutcracker. He wished to have “drifts and drifts” of the white stuff. Alas for Levine, but a relief for the dancers, the snow was only ankle deep.
For Lock and La La La Human Steps, collaboration in other productions is a rare thing, but Carsen was constant in his persuasion. Carsen strongly believed Lock’s choreographic language would be perfect for his contemporary staging. In turn, Lock found the opera to have been very “well-crafted.” Both Carsen and Lock were unruffled by the French critical response agreeing that, “If you get a reaction out of the audience, then you’ve kind of done it.”
The choreography and stage design of “Les Boreades” challenged the Parisians and excited the New Yorkers. Reported in Paris’ “Le Monde”, “The public, the night of the premiere, copiously booed the choreography and the staging of this production,” whereas the New York Times described “Les Boreades” as “a staggering masterpiece.” The conflicting reactions might have something to do with Garnier opera fans being loyal to their operas, but not necessarily being fans of ballet, and might explain their difficulty in understanding the dance in “Les Boreades”. Garnier opera audiences are known to be vocal in their opinions and do have a reputation for censuring modern productions — the pleasure was not reserved for “Les Boreades” alone. Yet, I believe, New Yorkers on the other hand, while known to be an extremely critical audience, would be more inclined to see any production that received a good review — the fans of opera also being fans of the arts in general.
A personal view
The audience reaction was not the only challenge in “Les Boreades”, although the few problems I faced as a dancer seem minor in retrospect. Sharing the stage with a star opera singer is a trifle more difficult than I imagined, as is sharing the stage with Mother Earth, no matter how beautiful the long-stemmed flowers, the autumnal leaves and ethereal snow may appear. As well, while not every artist can say they have been heckled onstage at the Opera Garnier, being on the receiving end of those strong opinions was not the most pleasant experience.
Despite the verbal tomatoes and having to navigate leaves and snow in pointe shoes however, I choose to remember “Les Boreades” for its greater artistic achievement.
Funny how, on leaving Canada, one realizes how strong the artists are within the country, and what exciting successes Canadians are achieving beyond our borders. Being part of such a controversial production created by three Canadians that played to sold out houses from Paris to New York and roused the opinion of many a critic, made me feel proud to be Canadian. As I took my first curtain call for “Les Boreades” at the Opera Garnier and my last at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I remember thinking that this was a truly thrilling moment in the performing arts world.
And I remember thinking, Canadians should know about this.
I had the absolute pleasure of seeing this opera in France last summer. It is also my understanding that it will be broadcast next week (March 11 or 13 — not sure but check your lisitngs) on Bravo! A wonderful review. It seems Ms. Hemingway can skillfully turn more than just her graceful body — she certainly turns a mean phrase.
Hugh John Murray