'If it's not baroque, don't fix it' as Cogsworth memorably puts it in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Many people view French Baroque opera as something that really needs a fix. Sadly it is a genre that has not been frequently revived for British audiences and as a result, it has faded in comparison to works by German and Italian composers of the same period.
Thankfully the new edition of Rameau's delightful score and ETO have come together to make a very cogent case for putting his scores back at the heart of the repertoire.
As plots go, it is pretty much on a par with many pieces of that period. Princess in love with her enemy, battles and despair ensue, everything is resolved by the intervention of the Gods. However thin the plot may be, the music gives real heart to the emotions of the characters and what glorious music it is.
Far more fluid than the opera serias of Handel, the music flows seamlessly from accompanied recitative through short arias and ensembles - all capturing the mood of the moment to perfection. Everything is there to serve the characters not to give singers opportunities to show off their high notes. It is a very human way of using music to tell the story.
The Old Street Band under the watchful and alert baton of Jonathan Williams delivers an orchestral sound full of light and shade. From the start of the overture, you felt very secure in their ability to bring the music to life. The continuo players were particularly engaging in their thoughtful support of the soloists.
Vocally the evening belongs to Alessandro Fisher. Originally cast in a supporting role, he stepped up into the title role with enormous confidence and a most wonderfully limpid tone to really make his mark. It is hard to imagine the role being sung better. It was clear that his colleagues were impressed as the audience with their joyous reaction to his success.
Galina Averina is a natural singer-actress and this allowed her to fully engage with the conflicts experienced by her character. I was particularly taken with Frederick Long and his interpretation of Ismenor. Even though the opera was being presented in a concert format, he communicated the meaning of every moment through both body and voice - making great use of his resonant bass-baritone.
Having seen a number of operas in concert, I think ETO missed a trick somewhat in not bringing more of the drama to life with their presentation. Given that the cast have rehearsed for the fully staged performances being given in other venues on the tour, it would have been wonderful for audiences to see a more dynamic performance. The Sheldonian Theatre is a wonderful setting for music of this era and would have provided all the backdrop needed to allow the cast fuller scope to bring more of the dramatic staging to life. Occasionally we got brief glimpses of what might have been and it would have been immensely satisfying to have seen more.
This is not to say that the audience were left unsatisfied. We were promised a concert performance and got a very high quality one indeed. A musical discovery for the vast majority of the audience - and one that will send them scurrying to explore more of the world of Rameau's operas.