Just as Salon/Sanctuary Concerts focuses on early music but not exclusively, it also presents more than concerts. The other night two actors and a harpsichordist under the direction of Erica Gould performed Gould’s adaptation of Denis Diderot’s pre-French-Revolution dialogue Rameau’s Nephew in a cafe-style staged reading. The results were mixed, but the presentation of this fascinating material was most welcome.
Diderot never published Rameau’s Nephew, having learned from sore experience that circulating writings that challenged the political and cultural status quo could result in hard jail time. We know the dialogue today because of its rescue by Schiller and German translation by Goethe, published in 1805, 21 years after Diderot’s death. The great German Romantics saw it as a worthy avatar of early Romanticism, and so it remains today.
Steven Rattazzi portrayed The Philosopher in a classical acting style that felt entirely appropriate to dialogue’s elevated if sometimes bawdy language. Haskell King took a different approach to the role of the dissolute young nephew of the famous composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. Recently booted out of a wealthy household to which he’d attached himself as a sort of court jester, The Nephew encounters his older friend in a cafe famous as a gathering place for chess players. During their extended conversation, the cynical nephew declares that it’s quite all right for creative people to take advantage of the rich, as otherwise they’ll only be taken advantage of themselves. The back-and-forth between the two illustrates the social and cultural dilemmas of the time and hints at the high stakes behind seemingly effete concerns like dinner-table behavior and music lessons.
Distinguished harpsichordist Andrew Appel contributed both to the atmosphere and to the drama with musical “cues” representing ideas and people under discussion (Voltaire, the composer Rameau), and treated us to a couple of keyboard works by Rameau in their entirety. The harpsichord had a beautiful tone and Appel entered fully into the playful spirit of the enterprise without saying a word.
But King’s approach to the role of The Nephew was an uncomfortable combination of stylized and naturalistic acting. The former made a few scenes, notably his depiction of how he gives a keyboard lesson, shine with humor and power. But elsewhere he didn’t seem to be in the same world as Rattazzi’s level-headed Philosopher, and his overall characterization didn’t suggest the inner turmoil and angst manifested in the anguished breakdowns Diderot wrote into the character.
Not that the great encyclopedist intended Rameau’s Nephew as a theatrical piece in the first place. It’s a cultural commentary and a philosophical (if not really Socratic) exercise. I hadn’t seen or even heard of a theatrical performance of it before, and dramaturgical flaws aside, the performance certainly piqued my interest in learning more about Diderot, not to mention cranking up some Rameau on Spotify.
Salon/Sanctuary‘s upcoming events include More Between Heaven and Earth: Thomas Jefferson, Maria Cosway, and the Music and Philosophy of the Enlightenment and Rossini in Paris. The titles alone show the breadth of the group’s ambition to refashion old stories and contextualize ancient music for modern audiences. There are countless concerts in New York City every week, but no one else does what Salon/Sanctuary does, and we’re lucky to have them.