REVIEW: Brighton Early Music Festival 2017

Ensemble Moliere: Pygmalion

Sunday October 29, Sallis Benney Theatre 3pm and 5.30pm – Pygmalion (music, Jean-Phillipe Rameau; libretto, Ballot de Sauvot) and Dance Sweets! Musical direction, Satoko Doi-Luck; Stage direction, Karolina Sofulak; Animation artist, Kate Anderson.

Ensemble Molière: Pygmalion, Josh Cooter (ten); Céphise, Roberta Diamond (sop); La Statue, Angela Hicks (sop); L’Amour, Rosalie Wahlfrid (actor, dancer). Satoko Doi-Luck, harpsichord; Flavia Hirte, flute; Oonagh Lee, oboe, voice flute (recorder); Alice Earll, Ellen Bundy, violins; Jakab Haufmann, bassoon; Kate Conway, viola da gamba.

Welcome to BREMF’s own world of pocket-sized, ‘picture-book opera’. Less than an hour long, yet not a minute too long. How to have fun watching Ovid’s age-old story compete and win over 21st Century suspended belief.

An intimately housed audience were soon wallowing happily in the innocent, silly tale of a young French sculptor whose work is so convincing, and his Testosterone and imagination so rampant, he is soon fancying like heck the very girl he has carved out of stone - surely the object of his exercise.

Except this is now Paris in the digital and animated world, and the sculpting geek is a screen slave lost cause. The singing of Josh Cooter (The Sixteen, The Tallis Scholars, Tenebrae and The Gesualdo Six) sweetly betrays his bespectacled character’s besottedly floundering ineptitude in face-to-face young love, once the sympathetic L’Amour/Venus/Cupid balletically makes his - and our - dream come true.

It works a treat, and Kate Anderson’s drawing and handwritten libretto lift the delightful tale out of the archaic into a ludicrous and yet still almost tear-jerking delight, as we laugh at the way we can let technological obsession scupper our chances of the simplest successes.

The beauteous French dialogue is yanked into colloquial English to be handwritten on to the backdrop animation. Yet the sung French remains sublimated in the great Rameau’s original musical responses - of sensitivity and joviality in characteristic turns.

As well as gratifying for its crowdfunders, this Pygmalion depiction is a dream come true, too, for Japanese Ensemble Moliere founder, Satoko Doi-Luck, whose vision this production was. She directed from the harpsichord as would probably have Rameau at the 1748 premiere at the Opera, Palais-Royal in Paris. And then she celebrated this new success by leading Ensemble Molière’s award-winning septet of musicians in a separate follow-up concert offering between the day’s two Pygmalion performances.

Their instrumental programme Dance Sweets! was a masterful confection of four suites of French Baroque dance music directly complementing Rameau’s rich contribution bookending the afternoon and evening. Ensemble Molière became a dance band in a Gallic town square and we had Lully’s Psyche Overture plus his eight-number selection from Le Bourgois Gentilhomme. Seven more dances came in Couperin’s Quatrième Concert Royaux. Then Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les Caractères de la Danse breathlessly brought us 14 dancer test-piece items in exacting but colourful succession.

Rebel needs lauding as a genuine mover in French Baroque, and Doi-Luck noted in conversation with me that this genre of early music still eludes British audiences. I remarked that English National Opera had taken until not very long ago to produce their first Rameau.

Not only does French Baroque require, but return our attention. Audiences at Pygmalion were subconsciously beguiled as much by Rameau’s score as the onstage enchantment. Ensemble Molière violinist Alice Earll’s introductions informed us, in effect, that the French nation as village and court dancers were country kilometres ahead of the British in accomplishment, virtuosity and versatility. Something meant they were having more fun than we were, it seems.

The confectionery references sprinkled in the programme notes added to the sherbet fountain pleasure of this Dance Sweets! concert. But such iced gems are a familiar part of the unstuffy yet deeply informative presentations from the people of BREMF. An outstanding British early music festival and, I’d estimate, an esteemed European one: created by women, and run almost entirely by women - be it noted.

Richard Amey

BREMF continues until its culminating 30th event, on November 12.

www.bremf.org.uk

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