Operatic “special occasion” pieces usually die with their final curtain call, though the most notable exception is probably Rossini’s Il viaggo a Reims, which stubbornly persists to this day. Interestingly, University College Opera (which has a long history of performing rare or new works) mounted a production of Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s Acante et Céphise, an opéra-ballet originally composed to commemorate the birth of the Duke of Burgundy and first performed at Versailles in 1751. The production is the first in Britain and (in all likelihood) the first in over 200 years. If this production was in any way an augury for the future, it will probably also be the last.
UCO is a subdivision of the University College London Union Music Society and therefore the majority of cast members are amateurs, save the four principals—who are emerging professionals—and the conductor and director—who are professionals. This motley crew made for a rather unpleasant disjunction during the performance: audience members enjoyed a great conductor and four fairly secure principals, yet had to endure concurrently the out-of-tune orchestra, the under rehearsed chorus, and questionable stage direction.
Conductor Charles Peebles did manage to bring order to chaos in some of the truly exceptional moments of the work; the chorus at the end of Act I, for example. Too often, however, his attempts at phrasing were lost amidst poor intonation and uncontrolled dynamics, especially from his brass section. Lawrence Olsworth-Peter was a mildly camp Acante, though he did have a few wonderfully believable moments. His high, light extension is certainly something to marvel at; undoubtedly he can look forward to a respectable career when his voice matures a bit further. Katherine Blumenthal’s Céphise was impressive; she was one of two performing onstage with a more than a modicum of style. Kevin Greenlaw sang with a shimmering baritone as Oroés; he ascended into his upper range with ease, had a superb legato, and realized exceptional chemistry with Blumenthal.
The singers deserve credit for bringing the music to life, as it is certainly no easy task to create an original interpretation of a role that history has damned to obscurity. However, the dance troupe really stole the show for me; all six actors had well-defined characters and invoked the old tradition of the intermezzo.
The production itself was creative given the size of the stage and (one presumes) the budget. The ubiquitous white jumpsuit gave the whole opera a sterile feel. Still, this was one of the best things about the evening: it worked to have each member of the chorus dressed in one and was at certain moments incredibly provocative. And yet, one questions the choice to have all the characters (except the actors and Oroés) in white as well.
One wonders why this piece was chosen in the first place? From the perspective of logistics alone it seems a questionable choice. To be fair, occasion pieces such as these are not in the canon for good reason. One could argue that, given the right circumstances and company, Rameau’s opera would be a success. I would disagree; like it’s eponymous characters’ love, Acante et Céphise needs a deus ex machina to survive.