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Review | Opera Lafayette gives fresh bite to French Baroque in eye-popping ‘Io’


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There were over-the-top looks, eye-popping colors and some of the highest camp I’ve ever seen. There was even some lip-syncing, now that I think about it. But Opera Lafayette’s spectacular, centuries-delayed premiere of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s unfinished one-act opéra-ballet “Io” was anything but a drag.

Presented at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater along with another lost one-act, Pierre de La Garde’s 1750 “Léandre et Héro,” the premiere completes Opera Lafayette’s season-length exploration of “The Era of Madame de Pompadour,” and confirms the company as one of the most creatively game and artistically sound operations in the business.

For a long time, de la Garde’s “Léandre et Héro” (as well as a companion work from 1750, “La Toilette de Venus”) was thought to have vanished. That is until early 2021, when a rare manuscript emerged on the Parisian market — a documentation of performances at King Louis XV’s Theatre Des Petits Cabinets at Versailles, which included the two works by de la Garde and librettist Pierre Laujon. The manuscript was acquired by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and serves as the basis for this production.

There was no dust detected on this salvaged treasure. The action of “Léandre et Héro” plays out against a clean, crisp, blue-skied and white-columned Sestos, presided over by the projected figure of Venus. The two lovers, spurned by their parents but encouraged by the gods, indulge their love, endure their separation, weather a ferocious storm and are reunited in immortality by a sufficiently charmed Neptune, sung with godly authority by bass-baritone Douglas Williams.

Before Wednesday night’s performance, soprano Emmanuelle de Negri became too closely acquainted with the region’s pollen problem and was unable to sing the title roles of Io and Héro (the latter a role originally sung by Madame de Pompadour herself).

She did, however, appear onstage Wednesday evening to act the part and mouth the lines admirably sung by cover soprano Margot Rood, who rose to the occasions (and differing demands) of both works. Rood has a sterling, gleaming tone and magnificent control — though her distance from the stage here and there resulted in slight asynchronies between the orchestra and the action.

Léandre was powerfully sung by tenor Maxime Melnik — well suited to Léandre’s pining protagonist, spirited away atop the waves of a tempestuous sea (embodied by blue-suited members of the Seán Curran Company). Dancers of the New York Baroque Dance Company portrayed a team of Tritons, and together with Curran’s troupe, filled the stage with spirited movement (the latter often demonstrating Curran’s step-dancing roots).

Conductor and harpsichordist Avi Stein led the Opera Lafayette chamber orchestra with grace and vigor — offering a churn of brisk thirds and fifths to simulate the storm, and charging the dances with infectious, buoyant energy. Flutist Charles Brink was especially strong, his delicate birdsong in “Léandre” a beguiling treat. The Opera Lafayette Chorus was also in brilliant form the whole evening, emerging in the aisles toward the celebratory closing scenes as inhabitants of Sestos, singing the triumph of love — and leaving everyone in the hall as “happy as the gods themselves.”

Rameau’s 1745 opéra-ballet “Io” was recently completed with the incorporation of music from another of Rameau’s operas, “Platée,” by musicologist and Rameau scholar Sylvie Bouissou. A number of musical, thematic and textual links exist to suggest that “Io” preceded (and perhaps even served as a draft for) the more substantial “Platée,” first performed in 1745, and shares some of the same characters and contours. Its librettist and the occasion of its composition also remain a mystery.

The now “complete” work is a finely wrought little marvel of satire, its bright and vivacious score and air of celestial mischief channeled cleverly into director Nick Olcott’s arresting staging.

The same trio of singers returned to embody the duo of gods in disguise scheming to seduce the nymph Io — each of them seemingly running on a recharged battery. Melnik transformed into a fabulous and funny Apollon, the dejected rival of Williams’s Jupiter. Rood once again supplied the voice of de Negri’s disembodied Io, though the latter was arresting onstage even via lip-sync.

The vocal highlight of the evening was soprano Gwendoline Blondeel, who emerged in a 14-foot tower of colorful tulle as La Folie. Her voice is lithe, elastic and effortlessly comic — her weird little flicks, trills and warbles earning delighted giggles from the audience. Also charming was the charismatic tenor Patrick Kilbride, who embodied Mercure in a costume I can only describe as a one-winged blueberry.

On that note, and in an unexpected twist, the biggest voice in the show undeniably belonged to costume designer Machine Dazzle, whose vision of “Io” felt like its animating force.

Not only were his costumes a visual delight, but they created their own strata of suspense and anticipation, with each vibrant look outsparkling the one before. I’ve never seen so much Lycra, lamé, glitter, garland, chiffon and fringe on one stage (which is saying a lot), and the maximalism felt custom-tailored to Rameau’s racing, bracing, mischievous music. More than the reanimation of a dormant dream, “Io” felt like the release of 280 years of pent-up energy.

The Library of Congress will host a follow-up symposium, “New Musical Discoveries from the Era of Madame Pompadour (1745-64),” on May 5. This program will also repeat as part of Opera Lafayette’s New York Baroque Music Festival, May 9-11.

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