Acante et Céphise, University College Opera, UCL, Bloomsbury Theatre, March 2012Posted on 20 March 2012
Each year University College Opera produces a little-performed opera from the past, and this year it was by the pre-eminent composer of eighteenth century French opera, Jean-Philippe Rameau. This particular opera was originally commissioned for the royal household to celebrate the birth of an heir to the heir to the throne, incongruously tacked on to the end of a story about two lovers, Acante and Céphise, a jealous genie Oroès and a good fairy Zirphile who protects the lovers by forming a telepathic bond between them. If Oroès hurts Acante he does the same to his desired Cephise, placing him in a quandary. In this production the royal birth is turned into several births and swaddled babies are literally thrown onto the stage at the end, one for each of the many couples in the chorus.
There are several problems with performing Rameau. Of course UCL cannot be expected to play it on original instruments, but Charles Peebles in the orchestra pit produced fine music from the orchestra after a wobbly start in the overture, and he gave huge rhythmic bounce to the dance interludes. A second problem is what to do with the dance interludes and a third problem is the lack of good librettos — Rameau does not seem to have had very successful collaborations with his librettists. To deal with the second and third problems, UCL brought in Christopher Cowell to direct and to choreograph, aided by Scarlett Perdereau and Bella Eacott, but while the programme notes highlight his international work and his directing of Rolando Villazon in a revival of Contes d’Hoffmann at the Royal Opera House, an amateur production is a very different matter.
While some of the dancers did well with the choreography, that was not uniformly the case, but my main complaint was the acting. Zirphile looked as if she was in great pain after several of her Act I arias, and she and some of the dancers over-acted with their facial expressions. Less can be more, and this is surely the responsibility of the director, but Lawrence Olsworth-Peter as Acante, Katherine Blumenthal as Céphise, and Kevin Greenlaw as Oroès all showed fine stage presence. Greenlaw also sang very strongly, with excellent French diction, Ms. Blumenthal sang beautifully, and Anna-Louise Costello managed well in the relatively high pitched role of Zirphile. Among the UCL students who had solo roles, Rebecca Rothwell sang with fine pitch and a lovely tone, and the chorus were magnificent.
As Rameau lovers will know, the English National Opera produced their first Rameau opera, Castor and Pollux last November, and this may well be the first staging of Acante et Céphise anywhere since the 1760s, so catch it while you can.
Performances continue until March 24 — for details click here.