“Machine Dazzle, meet Madame de Pompadour.” Who on earth, what on earth, is Machine Dazzle? We all know the former Mlle Poisson, infamous maîtresse-en-titre of naughty Louis XV of France, latterly Madame de Pompadour. Only the bureaucratic French could formalise 18th century hanky-panky.
But Mr Dazzle? “A provocateur commanding an expanding repertoire of stagecraft, design, performance, and music, Machine Dazzle is a virtuoso practitioner of queer maximalism,” according to New York’s Museum of Art and Design. And they should know. The Columbus Circle based gallery clearly named itself with the acronym MAD firmly in its sights.
The former Matthew Flower – was the name change really necessary? – designs outrageous clothes. Never mind the trendy gender hoopla. The costumes for the Rameau opera Io on the first night of the three-day Pompadour fest mounted by Washington’s Opera Lafayette Company in Manhattan’s East Harlem Museo de Barrio, were the most spectacular outfits to grace any opera stage on planet earth.
Correction. If the cast’s flying saucer from a Betelgeuse exoplanet, had landed in Central Park, avoiding Joe Biden’s annoying motorcade which clogged the upper east side mercilessly, and discharged the most exaggerated 1950’s AAARGH! HORROR! alien crew to cross Fifth Avenue, commandeering the stage, the impact on the audience would have been slight, compared with what Machine Dazzle brought us.
Sparkle, shimmer, illuminesce, Mr Brown and Mr Dazzle had brought true opera shock and awe to the heart of Manhattan.
Flower Dazzle was in the audience, Pity the folk in the row behind,
The costume maestro is at least eight feet tall and had affected a hair style much like a Type 1 super nova. He exploded onstage, as spectacularly dressed in person as his outrageous characters, visible from the George Washington Bridge. for a curtain call. He deserved his chorus of halloos.
I was witnessing a 21st century Rococo makeover for a previously unknown Rameau opera, Io, never performed in the composer’s lifetime, exhumed from score remnants by the editors of Rameau’s Opera Omnia, given the breath of life by Ryan Brown, Opera Lafayette’s indomitable founder and Artistic Director for twenty-eight years, and clothed by the unlikely Dazzle before being let loose on an unsuspecting public.
Have a gander at what he was up to here. Dazzle may be cutting edge. But he shocks with shimmering beauty, absurd exaggeration and sheer brass neck. His show was Fragonard on steroids – in motion.
How to describe the indescribable? Coronation watchers will have been bowled over by South African soprano, Pretty Yende, in that spectacular yellow dress, singing Sacred Fire by British composer, Sarah Class. The dress transformed Yende into an angel singing from the heights of Westminster Abbey. That’s exactly the impact Dazzle’s costumes sought to achieve – and did.
By cloaking the cast in the cutting edge of 21st century fashion, instead of 18th century Fragonard, Brown achieved the same wow factor for the audience that Pompadour’s then outrageous salon get-ups would have had on her select Versailles aristo guests.
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Here, in an intimate, uptown Fifth Avenue 572-seater theater, Brown was giving his audience the same experience of novelty that had made Pompadour’s salon the most sought-after ticket in Versailles. For an all too brief evening we were translated to the era of 18th century. Rococo France 2.0.
Io is about, well, not very much really. Substance was not the point of these evening entertainments at Versailles. They were divertissements, but often concealing a sharp political message. The work is a hilarious one-act opera-ballet. The plot pits two gods fighting for the love of a mortal nymph, the titular Io. Mercury plays his traditional role of messenger. There’s a storm, a character representing madness (“la Folie”) and the two gods just might have something going for each other.
That’s all you really need to know. But watch that nymph!! Elevated to the same stature as the Gods. A subliminal message from Mlle Poisson, pushy daughter of a middle-class financier, that she had made it to court as the king’s mistress. Having battered down the doors of court prejudice she wasn’t going to let anyone forget it.
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” If the recently crowned Queen Camilla had been in the audience, she would have understood Pompadour’s point.
The festival ran for three consecutive nights. Io was part of a double bill, coupled with de la Garde’s Léandre et Héro, another opera where a lowly suitor makes it to godly status. Oddly, by drowning in the Bosphorus. Héro then commits suicide by drowning to join him. Neptune takes pity. Waves his big fork. Voilà! Reunited, both as gods. La maîtresse-en-titre did bang on a bit about her status.
Night two, In the Salons of Versailles, was a programme of delightful instrumental and vocal pieces, composers ranging from Mozart, through Pergolesi, to the less well kent François Rebel and François Francoeur. Musically brilliant.
The third evening was devoted exclusively to Pergolesi. La servante maîtresse, based on the Italian La serva padrona, is an Intermezzo in two acts, telling the familiar tale of a pushy servant determined to marry her master and succeeding. Delivered with zing by all three characters, Zerbine, the scheming servant, Pandolfe, the put upon master and Scapin, a comic dogsbody who doubles as Zerbine’s eye-patched faux fiancé to make Pandolfe jealous, the piece was a superbly light-hearted amuse-bouche.
Necessary. As part two was a heart wrenching rendering of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Soprano, Gwendoline Blondeel and mezzo soprano, Sarah Mesko were outstanding. The 19 strong Opera Lafayette Orchestra, conducted by concertmaster Jacob Ashworth, brought quiet intimacy to the work, in stark contrast to the preceding extravagant buffa performance.
The research undertaken by Opera Lafayette which underpins all its performances is prodigious. The program runs to 111 pages. The notes tell stories of the Versailles court, a lost manuscript of Léandre et Héro restored to the French Bibliotheque Nationale – courtesy of Nizam Kettaneh, a Lafayette board member who was in the audience, and an essay by Melissa Hyde and Mark Ledbury, Rococo to the Max: Pompadour Profusion.
Here is to be found all you ever need to know about La Pomp’s theatrical obsession. Actually, it’s not a program, it’s a work of art in its own right.
And there were three pre-performance lectures, all unmissable if the works to follow were to be fully appreciated. Io was, I understand, filmed. I can’t wait for the release date.
On the night, Ryan Brown was not dressed by Machine Dazzle. He is a self-effacing, charming artist who has made it his life’s work to nurture interest in a musical era in France, often dismissed as lightweight puff, about which he is passionate. The festival in El Museo del Barrio was nothing short of his triumph. Dazzle Brown pulled it off.
And Another Thing!
Menachem Pressler, accomplished German-Israeli pianist who co-founded The Beaux Arts Trio in 1955 with a concert in Tanglewood, and which he eventually led until its dissolution in 2008 – appropriately after its final concert at …… Tanglewood – has died at the age of 99.
Pressler is one of the final surviving victims of Hitler’s ban on Jewish music and artists. Fortunately, he evaded the prison camps as his family had the foresight to flee Germany in 1939. The Life I Love, a Euroarts documentary, is a must watch, simply to understand what a huge contribution Pressler made to musical life in the second half of the 20th century.
It also raises the haunting “if only” question – about the many talented others, without fathers as prescient as Pressler’s, who would have been his musical peers had they survived.
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