Encounters

An Hour in the Company of Thomas Lebrun

The Director of Les Fêtes d’Hébé — By Simon Hatab

When one goes to the opera, one sometimes likes to recall how many years have passed since the work was last performed. Spectators of Les Fêtes d’Hébé who indulge in this test of memory are unlikely to come up with a ready answer: Rameau’s opera-ballet has not been performed in a staged version for the last 247 years. It makes a striking comeback in a production with ballet, directed by choreographer Thomas Lebrun for the Academy.

When one goes to the opera, one sometimes likes to recall how many years have passed since the work was last performed. Spectators of Les Fêtes d’Hébé who indulge in this test of memory are unlikely to come up with a ready answer: Rameau’s opera-ballet has not been performed in a staged version for the last 247 years. It makes a striking comeback in a production with ballet, directed by choreographer Thomas Lebrun for the Paris Opera Academy.

Thomas Lebrun’s programme note is more poetic than explanatory and begins thus:

“There is love

There is war,

There are lies,

There are things left unsaid, games of power…

In the end, Les Fêtes d’Hébé accords well with our own time.”

Should one see in this versified form a humoristic nod to Rameau’s work, which is epic, lyrical and pastoral by turns and whose form has defied any attempt to stage it for the past 247 years? First performed at the Royal Academy of Music in Paris on 21st May 1739, Les Fêtes d’Hébé was a triumphant success, crowning its composer with glory after the scandal of Hippolyte et Aricie and Les Indes Galantes. Based on a libretto conceived essentially to showcase brilliant displays of singing and dancing, Rameau gave free expression to his genius. Indeed, it is difficult to resist this music whose melodic lines conceal marvellous underlying harmonies and pave the way towards German classicism. For this new production at the Amphitheatre, the singers of the Academy will be joined by the Choristers of the Centre for Baroque Music in Versailles and musicians from the Royal College of Music in London, conducted by Jonathan Williams.

I started out from very simple impressions: one colour per entrée. Blue, red and yellow. Thomas Lebrun
However strongly one supports the view that a celebration needs no apology, one is forced to acknowledge the fact that, if Les Fêtes de Hébé remained unperformed for so long, it was doubtless because of the thinness of its libretto: the work comprises a prologue and three entrées, or acts, each of which is devoted to one aspect of the operatic arts: poetry, music and dance. As for the plot, here is the gist of it: Hebe, the goddess of youth, pursued by the Pleasures, is forced to flee Mount Olympus and find sanctuary in the arms of Love, whose successive victories the opera recounts. A mere pretext for Thomas Lebrun who decided to make a clean sweep of it: “Today we can’t literally show them setting off to war, the naiad saving heroes from shipwreck or the god descending from the flies on his celestial chariot…” The choreographer decided to set his “festivities” during the fifties, musical-comedy style, with old-fashioned touches provided by his costume designer: “I started out from very simple impressions: one colour per entrée. Blue, red and yellow.” He has also placed little white cubes around the edge of the stage on which the performers sit from time to time to watch the scene, as if these characters, who are trying to enjoy the festivities, remain eternal spectators of themselves.
Les Fêtes d’Hébé
Les Fêtes d’Hébé © Studio J’Adore Ce Que Vous Faites !
       When asked if he has tried to develop a narrative thread linking the tableaux, the choreographer remains evasive: “The libretto suggests that the different arts– poetry, music, dance - are separate. It is not true: the three arts are constantly combined within the different parts of the opera. That is the unifying thread for me, if there is one.” Everything is in everything. The rehearsal I watched confirmed his answer: dance is an important factor in the continuity and coherence of the production. Thomas Lebrun has choreographed every movement of the Academy singers: “I did not tell them when to raise their arms or what gesture to use to express anger. I aimed to construct a choreographic space within which each performer could then find his own language, his own simplicity.” Besides the singers, six dancers are present on stage. From the overture onwards, dance slides its way into the performance like a thread into the eye of a needle. And never leaves the stage. In the ceremonial of celebration, this choreographer likes nothing better than to develop distance, rupture, irony and, with a wry smile, reverence and irreverence. “A certain form of decadence too.” Celebration and war are often opposite faces of the same coin. We celebrate to forget for the space of a few hours the state of the world. Which here proves still to be cruelly pertinent.

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