PARIS — The play that became Verdi’s “La Traviata” was, its composer wrote in 1853, “un soggetto dell’epoca”: a story of our times. He bristled when censors insisted that the setting of the opera, with its inflammatory tale of a high-end prostitute’s death from tuberculosis, be shifted from the present day to a less threatening “circa 1700.”
Verdi wanted the audience to recognize itself onstage. And his fear that the work’s immediacy would be drowned in crinolines has been justified by a thousand soft, safe costume-drama “Traviatas.”
The director Simon Stone seems, at first glance, to have avoided safety. His new “Traviata,” at the Paris Opera, ostentatiously reproduces the trappings of our Instagram-scrolling “epoca.”
But for all its contemporary flourishes, Mr. Stone’s staging is sadly staid — less vivid than many an old-fashioned, velvet-lined “Traviata.” No, the true story of our times currently playing in Paris is a rather less likely opera: Rameau’s “Les Indes Galantes,” a rarely performed work from the early 18th century that’s been swept clean and supercharged with fresh energy by Clément Cogitore, an artist and filmmaker making his debut as a stage director, and the choreographer Bintou Dembélé, a pioneer of French hip-hop dance.
A couple of years ago, Mr. Cogitore produced a short film for the Paris Opera that set a surging mass of krump dancers loose on a bit of music from “Les Indes Galantes,” one of the Baroque “opéra-ballets” that combine loosely plotted sung narrative and lavish dance sequences. The six-minute video was such a hit that the company offered him a production of the full work.
Despite boasting one of Rameau’s most sensual, colorful, vigorous scores, it is a piece that needs some help. In Enlightenment France, “indes” referred generically to the non-European world, and the story, such as it is, looks paternistically to then-exotic locales like Turkey, Persia and Peru for four unconnected lessons in love and virtue.
The libretto may not break the toxicity meter, but it is uncomfortably populated by stereotypes, with colonial order valorized as the peaceable solution to a world out of joint. Something must be done with a work whose final act is called “The Savages.”
For Mr. Cogitore and Ms. Dembélé, that something has been clearing out the piece, rendering the stage spare and lucid, and permeating it with street and club dance — not just krump but also flex, vogue, break, electro and more — to empower the work’s “others” to represent themselves on their own terms.
Performed in front of a largely white audience on Sunday afternoon, this was still a brand of exoticism. But Mr. Cogitore and Ms. Dembélé have shifted the work’s power dynamics substantially toward egalitarianism.
They’ve done that without stinting on the wonder-inducing spectacle that was the Baroque’s reason for being. A carousel turns; vitrines slowly levitate; cheerleaders wield sparkly pom-poms. An explosive bout of break dancing brings to life the eruption of a Peruvian volcano.
The dancing and music share a ferociously polished extravagance. As the soprano Sabine Devieilhe, who plays several roles, delivers a solemn prayer to the god of marriage, Calvin Hunt, a flex dancer and a member of Ms. Dembélé’s Compagnie Rualité, gives a stage-filling solo as sublimely floating as her singing. Leonardo García Alarcón leads his Cappella Mediterranea ensemble in a vibrant performance, propulsive and tinged with the fermenting tang of period instruments.
Baroque pieces are usually performed in the Paris Opera’s ornate, relatively intimate Palais Garnier, but this “Indes Galantes” both musically and theatrically fills the 2,700-seat Bastille opera house. And while “La Traviata,” like other standard-repertory works, would generally be performed at the Bastille, Mr. Stone’s staging felt faceless even in the cozy confines of the Garnier.
His Violetta is a social-media influencer; at the start of the opera, we see the fruits of her obsessive documentation of her beauty tips, her partying and even her illness, racking up thousands of likes in the process. It’s a clever idea and prepares us for the character’s eventual isolation, a loneliness familiar to those with a lot of followers and few real friends.
But the notion of Violetta as an internet addict is swiftly abandoned, and the production’s mood is never as focused or dangerous as it should be, with Mr. Stone continually missing the forest for the trees of tiny, needlessly realistic details. (Why a live cow?) The chorus sounded mushy on Saturday evening; the main singers (Zuzana Markova, Atalla Ayan and Ludovic Tézier, with Carlo Montanaro conducting) were bland.
And the final scene’s embrace of sincerity — a parade of poignant photo posts of Violetta and her lover, Alfredo — was puzzling after Mr. Stone’s initially cleareyed portrayal of this classic courtesan as a slave to the attention economy. Had this Violetta insisted, for example, on live-streaming her death, it would have indicted our culture of relentless sharing as well as opera’s audience, ever hungry for female suffering. Instead, we got a retread of the same old tear-jerker.
But while I didn’t shed a drop for Mr. Stone’s Violetta, I found myself unexpectedly getting misty as “Les Indes Galantes” neared its end.
Despite its razzle-dazzle, this staging is by no means a benign vision. A giant mechanical claw reaches down from the flies at one point and retrieves from a pit in the stage the ruined wooden shell of a shipwrecked boat; the migrants it carried mill around, their future uncertain. The confrontation of Occident and “Indes,” conqueror and conquered, is throughout evoked in eerily slow-motion, stylized battles with armored, plastic-shield-wielding security forces. (There are also unsettling reminders that the marginalized are often recruited in their own policing.)
But for all the darkness they depict, Mr. Cogitore and Ms. Dembélé also revive the genuine joy the Enlightenment took in cultural encounter and discovery. The opera’s finale is a hard-won and fragile peace, but it is real peace nevertheless.
The climactic dance of “The Savages” remains, as it was in the 1730s, a thrilling presentation of what will be, for many in the audience, a foreign style, celebrated for its foreignness — here, an escalating, showstopping detonation of krump. But the sequence is now also an assertion of the fullness, the sufficiency, of the community performing it. These “others” don’t need the white gaze to exist; they meet that gaze, and go on dancing.
Zachary Woolfe has been the classical music editor since 2015. He was previously the opera critic of the New York Observer. @zwoolfe
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