The four seasons

Opera - Peter Conrad is swept away by the meteorological marvels of Les Boreades

Early music has become the music of the future: this month I attended the triumphant American premiere of an opera composed in 1763.

Jean-Philippe Rameau composed Les Boreades for the Opera de Paris, which called off rehearsals when the elderly composer, struck down by a putrid fever and scurvy, suddenly died in 1764. John Eliot Gardiner reconstructed the score during the 1970s, and gave the first staged performances at Aix-en-Provence in 1982; in 1999 at Salzburg, Simon Rattle conducted another production, which he brought to the Proms. Now the Opera has belatedly made amends for aborting Les Boreades in 1764. Robert Carsen's production, conducted by William Christie with his ensemble Les Arts Florissants, opened at the Palais Garnier in March. I saw it early this month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and since then a concert version has visited the Barbican. London was cheated of Carsen's meteorological marvels: whirlwinds, blizzards, rainshowers and glaring sunrises are essential to this opera about our emotional weather and the nature in which we are all embedded. But luckily, as this is a production that demands to be preserved, a DVD is on the way.

Les Boreades straddles two worlds. "Baroque Man" - as the director Jean-Louis Martinoty said in discussing his 1982 production at Aix - had outlived his time, and was soon to be replaced by Romanticism; the Olympian gods, who so imperiously dominate human affairs in French neoclassical tragedy, were transformed into elemental energies, the raging, skittish sources of our sexual compulsions. Divinity has been dispersed into nature, but human beings remain its irrational playthings, arbitrarily tempest-tossed, serially destroyed and reborn. Rameau mocks the ritualised flummery of the court and honours the intransigence of its heroine Alphise, who defies dynastic law and refuses to marry a descendant of Boree, the god of the north wind. A hurricane hustles Alphise off to the frigid, soaking hell of the Hyperboreans; she is reprieved by the fortuitous descent of the solar god Apollo.

Carsen wonders if Rameau's illness perhaps gave the Opera an excuse for suppressing the work, in which a cheeky nymph sings the praises of liberty. Encouraged by this radical hint, he relaxes the stifling, enclosed formality of the "tragedie lyrique" and presents Les Boreades as a pastoral comedy, which in the course of its five acts revolves through all four seasons. At Salzburg, Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann staged the work as a brittle, mannered social satire; Carsen lets it out of the box in which they confined it.

The stage is at first carpeted with flowers, which are censoriously mowed down by the grim, black-coated reapers of the court who press Alphise into a marriage of political convenience. Her lover, Abaris, meanwhile has exiled himself, and romps in the fields with a flock of copulating flower children. His idyll is disrupted as the year advances: autumn leaves are lashed through the air as if by Shelley's apocalyptic west wind, and a snowstorm leaves the characters plodding through drifts. The miserable Hyperboreans huddle - like damp, shivering Londoners - beneath umbrellas that they use as makeshift shelters. When Apollo enlightens their underground gloom, they nervously retreat behind sunglasses.

Abaris finally uses the phallic-tipped arrow awarded to him by Eros to quicken the frigid dead and coax them back to life for another fertile spring and glutted summer. At the end, the chorus replants the flowers that were uprooted as the opera began.

The cast, though not quite equalling Rattle's Salzburg team, is excellent. Laurent Naouri plays Boree as a sadistic storm trooper in a slinky leather overcoat, lording it in a realm of perpetual night and obfuscating fog. Toby Spence makes the tantrums of the rejected suitor Calisis - who attacks the wedding cake with his rapier when Alphise calls off their marriage, and scoffs a slice to express his contempt - both menacing and absurd. Paul Agnew's introverted despair suggests that Abaris is already a Romantic character, afflicted by private doubts and distresses that alienate him from the officious society of the court. Anna Maria Panzarella as Alphise, funereally imprisoned in a stiff black dress, looks and sounds depressed; her final resurrection, warmed by Apollo's radiance and refreshed by the sudden downpour that follows, is touching because so unexpected.

The hero of the occasion is the con- ductor. Once again William Christie justifies the florid metaphors he used when naming Les Arts Florissants (which he founded in 1979) and its associated vocal academy, Le Jardin des Voix: it is he who makes this profuse, tropically abundant garden grow.

John Eliot Gardiner's recording of Les Boreades is available on CD from Erato