Music review: Les Talens Lyriques, Versailles Opéra Royale

Antoine Dauvergne was no neglected genius, but this production is a pleasant divertissement.


Hercule Mourant (Antoine Dauvergne)

Versailles Opéra Royal, Les Talens Lyriques, dir. Christophe Rousset

The particular splendour of Versailles is all about scale. It's a point made forcefully when you turn a corner into the Avenue de Paris and the splendid municipal buildings and hôtels particuliers all shrink, suddenly dwarfed by the elegantly sprawling bulk of the Palace of Versailles itself. In the musical history of Versailles and the French baroque, Antoine Dauvergne is more Petit Trianon than palace - a curiosity, a charming postscript to Lully, Charpentier and of course his own teacher Rameau. His opera Hercule Mourant, performed last weekend for the first time since its 18th century premiere, reveals Dauvergne as no neglected genius, but a distinctive voice nonetheless, and one that inevitably speaks with greater resonance in the baroque beauty of the Opéra Royal, Versailles.

The highlight of one of many music festivals that punctuate the Versailles calendar, this concert performance of Hercule Mourant by Christophe Rousset and the musicians of Les Talens Lyriques was the culmination of ten years of research and reconstruction by the musicologists of the Centre de Musique Baroque Versailles. Charged with promoting the forgotten works of this period, they curate an annual programme that fleshes out the silhouetted musical landscape of the baroque, exposing transitional or neglected figures such as Mondonville, Sacchini and Dauvergne.

Fresh from the critical success of their most recent baroque rehabilitation project (Lully's Bellérophon), Rousset and the Les Talens Lyriques appeared here in full force - doubled wind and brass responsible for characterising each of the opera's self-contained acts. Rousset's own continuo accompaniments were daringly spare, celebrating the simplicity in Dauvergne's writing that, rather unusually, eschews excess in favour of dramatic clarity. This play of muted textures was at its best in a brief dialogue between ingénue Iole (sweetly, if not always consistently sung by Julie Fuchs)and Dejanire (Veronique Gens) - the queen all percussive harpsichord chords, the young princess a haze of sustained flutes and strings.

A habitual collaborator of Rousset's, Gens led the cast as Hercules's embittered wife. Having extracted all possible emotion from generic vocal showpiece "La honte, La douleur", she was at last able to bring her dramatic subtlety to bear in the extended Act IV arioso, leaving us in calculated doubt as to the sincerity of her devotion to her husband. While both Andrew Foster-Williams's Hercules (who grew vocally into the challenge of the final act) and Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro's Hilus were stylish and assured, it was the supporting roles that offered the surprises.

Jennifer Borghi's Juno was a venomous delight, a worthy foil to Gens during her brief stage time, and Edwin Crossley-Mercer as Philoctete (whose first entrance is heralded by the fussiest, most deliciously pompous little cello solo) risked upstaging Foster-Williams with the meat of his tone. While with Rameau or Handel you can generally be certain where your big tunes are coming from, the bonus of the evening was a lightly virtuosic aria from the otherwise unimportant Grand-Pretre de Jupiter (Romain Champion) which satisfied any cravings for more conventional arias among the through-composed fluidity of the score.

The question Dauvergne's contemporaries and fellow composers asked of Hercule Mourant is still the opera's central issue: how can our hero Hercules sing his own death, and do so without debasing myth or betraying the drama? Dauvergne's answer is found most strikingly in the textural effects of the opera's final two acts. Employing muted bassoons (an innovation not heard again until the 19th century) together with horns and strings, Dauvergne sets up a unique sonority for the Act V opening, colouring Hercules' death-pangs and those at his wife's betrayal with shades quite different from either the flute-driven Act II or the marshal trumpets of Act III. Even when we reach the opera's quasi-symphonic orchestral postlude, a lively Chaconne that dispels the gloom with its dance rhythms, the bassoons remain prominent within the texture, a baleful reminder of struggles past.

Hercule Mourant is no more the equal of Bellérophon than Dauvergne himself is a real rival to Lully. Yet there is interest to be found here in the harmonic extremity and textural sensitivity of this work. Prioritising dramatic directness over self-reflexive technical flourishes, Dauvergne's music risks (and yes, occasionally succumbs to) banality, but also anticipates the Romantic model for opera that was born with Gluck. A charming curiosity, if not perhaps worth a full-scale staging, when Hercule Mourant comes gift-wrapped in the gilded interior of the Opéra Royal it still makes for a pleasant evening's divertissement.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times