Forgotten French opera resurrected in Stockholm

After centuries of virtual hibernation, French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau's enigmatic opera "Zoroastre" will be brought back to life next week at a royal theatre near Stockholm that has remained unchanged since the 1700s.

On a thick, wooden-planked stage, lined with crystal chandeliers with wax candles and surrounded by faded painted Greek columns, curtains and busts, an international group of opera singers will on Tuesday perform the mythical story of Zoroastre and the eternal battle between good and evil.

Although frequently performed in Rameau’s lifetime, the piece, which dates from 1756, has hardly been performed since his death in 1764.

“It’s very, very rare. I think it has been done in France in the 1960s and also in Boston in the 80s,” French maestro Christophe Rousset, who is conducting the 27-member orchestra, told AFP ahead of a rehearsal on Wednesday.

Zoroastre alludes to the founder of the Persian religion Zoroastrianism in the sixth century BC, and the opera describes the age-old struggle between light and darkness and contains elements of freemasonry and plenty of stormy emotions.

The diversity of the tale is woven tight with constantly changing music, according to Rousset, who is considered one of the brightest stars in Baroque music today.

The music “is spectacular. It will be very surprising for an audience of today. I think they expect something more static, and it’s never static. It’s always in change, and it surprises you,” he said.

The fact that the piece will be performed at the Drottningholms Slottsteater, which sits nestled next to the royal family residence on the Drottningholm island just outside Stockholm, brings the ancient story to life, Rousset said.

“The theatre is this fantastic box, a time machine that brings you back to the 18th century,” he said, pointing out that everything in the theatre dates back to its creation in 1766, including a wooden wheel below stage used to change the scenery which is turned by six people.

“This project is using the characteristics of the theatre … because French opera is more about magic and this house has that,” he added.

Several of the opera singers agreed that performing in a Rameau opera in this theatre is an exhilarating experience.

“It’s interesting because it’s both a museum and a theatre so we are not allowed to lean on the walls. Not even on stage. People rush up and say, ‘no, no, don’t touch the walls like that!’ It’s very interesting to make theatre in that kind of atmosphere,” Swedish singer Lars Arvidson, who plays the role of the evil Zopire, or Revenge, told AFP.

“This place is like a cocoon. We feel the real feelings of the old actors and singers who were acting and singing here. The emotions here are really fantastic. I’ve played at a lot of theatres but this is really the first one with such a spirit,” agreed French singer Gerard Theruel, who plays the good Oromases, Zoroastre guardian.

“And don’t forget the dust,” Hungarian singer Evgueniy Alexiev, who plays Zoroastre’s archenemy the evil Abramane, chimed in.

“There is dust from three centuries here. The very dust from the king is here,” he said smiling from behind a mask of heavy makeup and a long, black, curly wig.

While the artists involved are excited to participate in this rare project, they all admit that it is no minor undertaking.

“Everything is challenging really, because it’s a big enterprise. The music is very difficult for everybody, the scening is very difficult, the choir also is asked to do some very difficult things and this style of French music is very particular,” Rousset said.

“But I think the show is ready. Now we desperately need an audience,” he added.

The opera is scheduled to open on August 2 and to play every other day through August 16.