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.

BBC/YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.