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Recordings

Rameau Operas
19 Dec 2011

Operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau, an organist and music theoretician, was active for much of his life in musical centers distant from the cultural juggernaut of Paris.

Rameau Operas

Les Boreades; Castor et Pollux; Motette “In Convertendo”; Les Indes Galantes; Les Paladins; Zoroastre

Opus Arte OA1052BD [11 DVDs]

$68.49  Click to buy

His brilliant Treatise on Harmony (1722) is a work which offered what many historians of music theory and composition regard as the most powerful and persuasive presentations of the harmonic and contrapuntal ideas which dominate the analysis of music to this day. This treatise, plus Rameau’s impressive organ and harpsichord works, would be quite enough to have guaranteed his preeminence among eighteenth-century French musicians. There was, however, even more to Rameau than this: Rameau the opera composer, the orchestrator, the dramatist, the creator of impressive and unforgettable musical vistas and choral tableaus which had direct and telling influences on the great composers of the latter century, particularly Gluck and Mozart. It is in these wonderful operas that we see why Rameau was so popular in the court of Louis XV, and why the leading philosophical and literary figures of the day admired his talent and worked on his libretti.

The beautiful selection of works provided in this recording allows the modern listener to view and enjoy the spectacle of five of Rameau’s most popular operatic creations in historically accurate performances, most of them under the baton of William Christie, one of the most remarkable figures in the history of modern baroque performance practice. Such a set of recordings will be of special use to any professor or teacher of courses in baroque opera, dance, or stagecraft, and for any student of opera history. Along with this, as a special treat, the set includes a performance of In Convertendo, a Grand Motet from the composer’s youth, as a part of an informative documentary on the composer. The operas selected (those directed by Christie include Les Indes Galantes, Les Boréades, Les Paladins; Zoroastre and Castor et Pollux are directed by Christie’s long-time associate, Christophe Rousset) include three of the most popular in the repertoire (i.e., Les Indes Galantes, Castor et Pollux, and Les Boréades). Of this group, Les Indes Galantes was undeniably the favorite work of the composer in his day — it was wildly popular as an operatic tour de force set in a series of different exotic locales, and featuring the gamut of musical effects and fanciful plot lines which even today remain charming and highly entertaining. The work received special mention in the very first barrage of the most famous pamphlet war of the century, the Querelle des Bouffons, when in 1752 Baron d’Holbach mocked those “good citizens” who “could not hear the overtures to Les Indes galantes and Les Talents lyriques without shuddering.”

Christie’s production of Les Indes galantes helps us understand why the work was so popular. Les Arts Florissants Orchestra and Chorus, and the sets and costumes of Marina Draghici in the staging by Andrei Serban, make a powerful impression. This work, best described as an opera-ballet due to the extensive use of dance, is made up of four large sections and a prologue, with each of the four sections representing a different non-European culture (i.e., The Turks, The Incas, The Persians, and by far the liveliest group — The American Savages). Throughout the production the vocal and instrumental quality of the performances is very high. After the obligatory prologue of the gods, the first entrée presents the world of the Turks, with a special focus on the humanity of Osman (sung competently by Nicolas Cavallier) who assists in reunited lovers lost at sea. Anna Maria Panzarella shines in this scene as the heroic Emilie. Nathan Berg is outstanding as Huascar in the second entrée, as is the wonderful ceremonial quality of the scenes of the Incas, which can be viewed as forerunners to similar marvelous ceremonial passages in Gluck and Mozart (e.g., Orfeo ed Euridice, Idomeneo, The Magic Flute). Special praise should be given to the wonderful volcanic eruption scene which concludes this portion of the opera, which contains is a delightful and exciting example of Rameau’s keen sense of orchestral drama. The third section of the opera, Les Fleurs — fête persane, allows us to experience the wonderful voice of Richard Croft, who is excellent in the role of Tacmas, and the highly enjoyable choreograpy of Blanca Li, whose dancers excel in the famous Ballet des fleurs, rising out of pots like blooming flowers. Christie and his team reserve their best work for the finale of the opera, Les Sauvages. Patricia Petibon provides us with a most memorable Zima, whose on-stage gyrations and coquettish demeanor is perfectly suited for her role as the sought-after Indian princess. Christie’s contribution to this last scene is palpable, as the orchestral accompaniment literally pulsates, creating an unforgettable impression. It is Petebon who says later, in the documentary attached to the production (“Swinging Rameau”) that “an American has rediscovered our repertoire!”

The remaining works in the Opus Arte set, while not quite equaling the production of Les Indes Galantes in musical impact, are all of interest to the connoisseur. Christie and Les Arts Florissants versions of Les Paladins and Les Boréades (a work not staged in the composer’s lifetime due to its Masonic themes) are solid and musically convincing, and their production of the wonderful motet In Convertendo is highly effective and memorable. Michael Levine’s sets and costume designs for Les Boréades are eye-catching imitations of Dior, but it is the performance of Barbara Bonney as Alphise and Paul Agnew as Abaris which is the most powerful aspect of the recording. The least attractive work in the set is easily Les Paladins, which features quirky but amateurish choreography, sets, and stage direction by José Montalvo and Dominque Hervieu.

Rousset’s version of Castor et Pollux (featuring Les Talens Lyriques and the Chorus of the Netherlands Opera) is impressive, and the roles of the tragic brothers (Finnur Bjarnason as Castor and Henk Neven as Pollux) are beautifully sung. Patrick Kinmonth’s sets and costumes are minimalistic but effective. Rousset’s direction of Zoroastre — another Masonic-themed work — is also a treat, featuring the Drottningholm Theatre Orchestra and Chorus as well as Les Talens Lyriques. This disc includes a fascinating documentary which provides wonderful back-stage views of the famous Drottningholm theatre. Anders Dahlin, who sings the title role, is masterful in his interpretation, which is both lyric and agile as the occasion demands.

Donald R. Boomgaarden
Dean, College of Music and Fine Arts
Loyola University New Orleans

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