I watched *Titon et l’Aurore* online on March 26, 2021. It was a production from the Opéra Comique in Paris, done by Les Arts Florissants done in January 2021. It’s a French Baroque opera by a composer I’d never heard of, Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville. I read about the performance in the NY Times and was drawn to it because of the Les Arts Florissants and William Christie connection. I’m a huge fan of theirs and his from way back, I’ve always been amazed by everything I’ve seen and heard of theirs. Plus it was directed by the great Basil Twist, designer, puppeteer, all around theatrical genius. Another artist who always impresses me, though I haven’t seen as much of his work as I have Christie’s.
This is how the opera was described on the website: “Live from the famed Opéra-Comique in Paris, discover *Titon et l’Aurore* by de Mondonville. This 1753 opera-ballet follows the tumultuous and seemingly unbreakable liaison between l’Aurore, a goddess running from her immortal fate, and shepherd Titon. Basil Twist’s masterful staging and a typically impeccable performance by Les Arts Florissants, under the direction of William Christie, make this production a delight for the eyes and ears.”
The overture started off sounding like a typical Baroque overture, nothing special, but then the rollicking fast section had lots of crackle and bite and I felt like we were in for a treat. The first image of the show made it even more enticing: the orchestra wrapped up the overture and the curtain rose very slowly to reveal a second curtain, done in a sparkly fabric in a beguiling shade of muted medium blue. That curtain parted slowly (not quite as slowly as the previous curtain) to reveal a bass in a burgundy toga, Prometheus, giving a prologue. He reached offstage at one point and pulled his arm back, now holding a torch, whose flame appeared to be made out of orange silk with some kind of tiny lighting instrument. It was the first moment of whimsy in a show loaded with whimsy.
This led to a fiery instrumental interlude, with the puppeteers behind him waving silk banners and a tall, narrow panel of silk down the center of the stage, all of this perfectly illustrating the raucous music in the orchestra. This is what I love in opera staging in general and Baroque opera staging in particular: something to look at that expresses something in the music, that supports the music rather than distracting us from it.
Cupid came onstage, a darling soprano wearing the costume of an 18th century French male aristocrat, but in silver lamé. Delicious! You could tell that she loved that costume, and who could blame her? Both of these singers, Renato Dolcini and Julie Roset, sang with the bone-deep sense of the French Baroque style that one has come to expect from Les Arts Florissants. They sing with a creamy, well-produced sound coupled with a highly expressive delivery of the text. The singing is refined but not overly delicate.
The glittery blue curtain closed and then opened again on a gorgeous starry night with tree branches dangling from above. Tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen played Titon, a shepherd who’s in love with Aurore, the goddess of the dawn. His singing was lovely and sweet. Her entrance was done with sunny playing from the orchestra and some stunning lighting effects along the back wall. I wasn’t crazy for soprano Gwendoline Blondeel as Aurore, her voice was a little thin, but she fully inhabited her gold gown with tulle side panels. Oh yes. They had a love duet, they sounded great together.
A group of shepherds and sheep come onstage, the sheep played by puppets. So cute. The scene ended with the chorus of shepherds dancing about in a charming manner. It made me think of the shows I did at Madison Opera and how that chorus would NOT have been so charming in their dancing. I’m just sayin’.
Then we had some conflict: Aeolus, the god of the winds, was angry and jealous, he was in love with Aurore, too. Marc Mauillon played this role, sang with conviction, and was greatly aided by the silky fluttering surrounding him. And Palès, a goddess, was in love with Titon. She was played by soprano Emmanuelle de Negri and was maybe my favorite singer in the show, she was full tilt diva, she played this French Baroque goddess like an ancestor to Tosca. And you know I’ll respond to that.
The orchestra really got a chance to shine during the scenes for these two, it seemed like de Mondonville was inspired on a deeper level when he was writing for them. They had a little skirmish, they made some threats, more fluttering silk, yadda yadda, and everything turned out fine for the title couple. Twist decorated the final magical, transformation-through-love scene with lots of sparkle, I’d never seen such meaningful sparkle.