Christophe Rousset on freedom of expression and preserving our universal cultural heritage
Over the years, our various opera productions across Europe have been received with some widely conflicting reactions from audiences. Following two acclaimed runs of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Cherubini’s Medée at Brussels La Monnaie, we took the full production to Paris’s Theatre des Champs-Elysees where the audience brought the premiere to a halt, shouting complaints about the modernisation of the libretto’s recitatives to colloquial French. Medea, the ultimate oriental outsider, was stopped in her tracks for 5 minutes until the audience calmed down.
On the other side of La Manche, we were surprised to read about the recent reactions to the Royal Opera House’s new production of William Tell and doubted whether in France, audiences would be so incensed. A French colleague based in the UK asked how would British audiences react to our performance of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes from a production by Laura Scozzi in Bordeaux (previously in Toulouse).
Though the full production hasn’t been seen in the UK (we did a concert performance at the Barbican a year ago), the DVD of Les Indes Galantes has just been released. I wonder whether there will be some raised eyebrows in the opening scene set in the Garden of Eden with a completely naked ballet troupe, which The Arts Desk described as ‘Bottoms Up Rameau’. The Times followed up with: ‘Gasps rang around the 18th-century Bordeaux opera house. Naked dancing was what officially prevented the full show coming to London. Avoiding a fatwa, though, might also have played a part. Needless to say, we’re far from Baroque customs in this show.’
In truth, the Barbican hadn’t even considered staging the full production. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see this reaction, which was very different from that of the French media. Who are more conservative: British or French opera audiences?
Unlike staging the classics of the repertoire from Mozart to Verdi, working in the Baroque field, often reviving little-known or little-performed operas gives us an unusual freedom to experiment, as audiences don’t come along with expectations of what the setting should be. Laura Scozzi’s production took this Baroque tale of different cultures across the globe – the antiquated notion of ‘Indians’ from the Orient to South America through the simplistic prism of the Baroque period – and adapted it to a modern day journey across our globe from Greece to Iran and Peru. Laura wanted to explore the theme of female exploitation and touch on the global dilemmas of our times. A Turkish beach is flooded by migrants fleeing conflicts further east, followed by a catwalk of blonde-wigged models flaunting lingerie under the eager gaze of men accompanied by their chadored wives. From a Peruvian drug baron’s den the production ended in the US with the conflict between materialism and preserving the environment.
Observed through English eyes (The Arts Desk again), there was an excitement about the playfulness of this ‘daring production of an innovative opera ballet…If only the audience could see what I saw - quite the loveliest and most innocent naked choreography ever, surely…Scozzi is threading a message through all her Indes which ties in neatly enough with the original theme: the loss of innocence in the shape of sexual subjugation…This was edgy theatre: the Iranian men - which also means the women of the chorus in drag, just as the male dancers play the women - lord it over blond-wigged dollies in skimpy underwear as well as chadored ladies.’ The Times review quoted earlier pointed to Britain’s sensitivity to being socially and politically correct, which perhaps comes at an expense of creative expression.
With the growing migrant problem across Europe, we have been sensitized to new cultural influences and are continually accommodating new cultural mores different from our traditional ones. This comes with mixed reactions reflecting each country’s sense of tolerance or intolerance determined by fear and a perceived threat. This often results in assimilation at the expense of suppressing uncomfortable truths and debate, or the opposite in derision and rejection. It has also led European leaders to talk with renewed enthusiasm of the value of culture in fusing society, despite recent cuts to arts budgets imposed in times of austerity. At the same time, this is set against the backdrop of our inability to protect our universal cultural heritage from destruction in the Middle East as another temple is destroyed in Palmyra.
Whether through budget cuts or the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage, we as musicians and artists can’t overlook the immense loss this can lead to over the long term. Art cannot be instrumentalised - history gives ample proof, despite the existence of an art of propaganda. Art is far more than a consumer good; it has an even greater value. Art, in its essential form, is freedom; it is conducive to liberty, equality and fraternity. It contributes to social bonds, and if we, as a community, give it the means to be so, it can and should be made accessible to all.
At one stage in my teens, I had wanted to be an archaeologist but I have channelled this enthusiasm into reviving often obscure, forgotten operas. Preserving the art of the past and bringing it to life in provocative, often controversial ways has often been deemed elitist or a luxury but I full-heartedly endorse this elitism without resorting to a dumbed-down, low-cost world. Vive Rameau and all cultural endeavours of the past from ancient times to today.
The DVD of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes is out now (buy from Amazon).
Christophe Rousset’s new recording of Rameau’s Zaïs with Les Talens Lyriques is released today, September 18 (buy from Amazon).