M. Jourdain’s entrance
In France and elsewhere in Europe they’ve been talking about this production ever since it premiered six years ago. Here it is known to early music lovers, because of the splendid performance by Le Poème Harmonique of Lully’s complete score for this, the last and largest of the comédie-ballets he did with Molière. But otherwise I don’t think many on this side of the Atlantic are aware of it. It continues to tour in Europe, but as far as I know has not yet played in North America.
As yet I have only seen clips of the splendid video version, which lists for close to $100 around $20 on Amazon, and is PAL format only, so in the States and Canada you’d also need a region free player to watch it. But it looks well worth it.
I’ll have more to say when I’ve seen the whole thing. But it’s already plain to me that it really is a landmark, particularly for the theater. There have been plenty of good productions of baroque opera in recent decades, but this takes an entirely different direction (this is not opera, for one thing). What it does, in fact, is finally apply all the vitality of the early music movement to the theater. Baroque gesture, dance, pantomime, reconstructed 17th century pronunciation, candle footlights, frontal playing, all done with the greatest conviction, imagination, humor, and verve, and without the slightest concession to “contemporary relevance” or directorial “concepts.” In Europe, where that sort of nonsense has been even more rampant than here, it must seem more than just a breath of fresh air. No wonder people love it.
Not everyone, of course. Some in France haven’t been too wild about the period pronunciation, which is taken pretty far here. Many others are charmed by it. It’s a complicated issue – as one critic points out, to a modern audience the effect is in any case exotic, as it would not have been to an audience of Louis XIV’s time, so “authenticity” in this case defeats itself. But paradoxes of this sort are second nature to the current generation of early musicians, who do not take them (or themselves) too seriously. In the best, like Le Poème Harmonique, what you see is a passion for discovery and reinvention, with very little dogma. Now it seems that spirit has reached the theater as well. At least in France.