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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 17 JUNE 2007— At a press conference earlier last month, both Gerard Mortier and Brigitte Lefèvre, respectively general and artistic director of the Paris Opéra, spoke of their mutual desire to create a work uniting music, opera and dance, thus continuing the policy begun with Orpheus and Eurydice last year. Mr. Mortier himself emphasised the importance of this new production at the Palais Garnier, which combined the genius of George Frederic Handel who set to music the immortal verse of the British poet John Milton in 1740, with the ultra-contemporary and controversial South African choreographer, Robyn Orlin.

As far as the music and singing were concerned, the evening was a triumph, but the audience had to wait for the last fifteen minutes to see dance play a coherent part of the whole. That last quarter of an hour proved to be so moving and beautiful that one simply wondered what the choreographer Robyn Orlin had been doing for the rest of the time.

L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato, renamed A Piece for Several Memories by the choreographer, is one of the most beautiful and luminous scores the composer wrote. The two allegorical poems by John Milton, written when he was only in his twenties, present "l'Allegro", the joyful, and "il Penseroso", the thoughtful, the two contradictory aspects of human existence from which all art takes its inspiration and which fairly cries out to be translated into dance. The former concerns itself with laughter, song and beauty, while the latter, contemplative, is devoted to study and solitude.

The orchestra and choir of Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie, supreme interpreters of baroque music, were magnificent as were the soloists, soprano Kate Royal, tenor Toby Spence, and baritone Roderick Williams, all three trained at the Guildhall school of Music and Drama. Special mention must also be given to young Daniel Krahmer, soloist from the Tolzer Knabenchor, a German based choir for gifted boys which specializes in sacred music.

Robyn Orlin: A Piece for Several Memories
Photo: Maarten Vanden
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

And while the soloists dominated the stage for the most part, the choir itself sat in the first few rows of the orchestra stalls facing them. Decked out in their best, they were to all intents and purposes part of the audience until they suddenly popped up and turned around to face the rest of the amphitheatre to sing. It was theatrically and musically very impressive.

A screen was erected halfway up and across the stage, and images were shown, to differing effects. While a giant-sized lion's head and the back streets of Johannesburg littered with garbage cans did little for me, then the shots of September 11th and the sublime sunsets shown at the end were most moving.

However, the same cannot be said of the dance, of which there was none. The dancers, who spent most of their time dressing and undressing and waggling plastic ducks around in their mouths, served mainly as décor, often to the detriment of the music. There were fourteen of them on stage, wriggling around in yellow, red, green and orange swimsuits led by a simpering Nicolas le Riche. With his dyed blonde hair and huge stocky legs emerging from minute red trunks which left the cheeks of his bottom hanging out, he acted like the drunken remains of a Welsh rugby man drowning his sorrows after a 40 to 3 defeat. This was far from being his greatest role, and one could only feel sad for those spectators who were seeing this great artist for perhaps the first and only time.

Matters went from bad to worse with the arrival of Alice Renavand, who was wearing pointe shoes not only on her feet but on her hands too as she groveled along the floor, a sheep's mask covering her pretty face. Whereas Orlin had openly confessed her ignorance of baroque music at the press conference, it became increasingly clear that Milton too, was beyond her grasp.

There was a stupid parody of La Bayadère, after which several of the audience left the theatre noisily, shuffling out in disgust as this was followed by a lumpy woman came onto the stage wearing goggles and a red bra, while the video above her head showed cows in a field. Tired of these antics, I closed my eyes for a while, to soak up the glorious music, but unfortunately did not miss Mr. le Riche smirking around in his high heeled gold shoes and a rust coloured wig, more transvestite than king, as he began to wrap the long-suffering soprano around in red sticky tape. He and the rest of the company began to perform the usual kind of tricks that choreographers ask dancers to do when they run out of ideas. Perhaps one criticism of this production is to ask why Orlyn had to use the opera dancers, since they basically had just walk-on parts.

Robyn Orlin: A Piece for Several Memories
Photo: Maarten Vanden
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

However, the last fifteen minutes, where she questions the place of the dancers and singers in the world of destruction around us, were excellently staged. The images on the video, the lighting which was admirable throughout, plus the dancers in gorgeously coloured costumes, all worked as a whole. It was superb. And above it all, the singing soared, magnificent. The "three-ring circus" from Robyn Orlin's childhood, where she watched three things at a time took flight at the end when she broke away from Johannesburg and her roots and began to look at the world outside. An enormous risk had been taken; it was just a shame that the choreographer couldn't fulfil the trust put in her earlier.

Patricia Boccadoro is dance editor at   

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