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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Dardanus (1739) [128:07]
Paul Agnew (tenor) - Dardanus
Paul Whelan (baritone) - Anténor
Kathryn McCusker (soprano) - Iphise
Stephen Bennett (bass) - Teucer
Damian Whiteley (bass) - Isménor
Penelope Mills (soprano) - Vénus
Miriam Allan (soprano) - Une Phrygienne; Un Songe
Anna Fraser (soprano) - Une Phrygienne
David Greco; Dan Walker; Corin Bone
Pinchgut Opera/Justin Way
Orchestra of the Antipodes (on period instruments)/Antony Walker
Artistic Directors: Erin Helyard and Antony Walker
rec. live, 30 November, 3-5 December 2005, City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
ABC CLASSICS 476 5844 [54:35 + 73:32]



Dardanus is a five-act opera with a libretto by Charles-Antoine Le Clerc de la Bruère (1714-1754). First performed on 19 November 1739, the performers were the Académie Royale de Musique in the Théâtre du Palais Royal. It immediately created controversy in its diversion from the style and traditions which had been established by Lully as far back as 1672 when that composer was granted exclusive rights to produce sung drama in the French capital.  
 
The original story is loosely based on that of Dardanus, son of Jupiter. However, in the opera, Dardanus, in love with Iphise, is at war with her father King Teucer, who has promised to marry his daughter to his ally King Antenor. Dardanus and Iphise meet through the intervention of the magician Isménor. Dardanus attacks a monster ravaging Teucer’s kingdom, saving the life of Anténor who is attempting, unsuccessfully, to kill it. Teucer and Dardanus make peace, the latter marrying Iphise.
 
The original criticisms of the opera included one contemporary comment which stated that “people were struck by the harmonic richness but there is so much music that in three whole hours the orchestra didn’t have time to as much as sneeze.” Rameau indeed omitted or reduced chunks of the original music in the later 1744 version, so the choice for performances has tended towards the original 1739 version, Here some of the 1744 additions have been included, such as the ‘Lieux funestes’ prison scene in Act IV scene I. The only significant omission in this version is that of the original Prologue, which is largely irrelevant to the main plot. Most of these choices put this recording into direct competition with the 2000 Archiv production with Marc Minkowski and his ensemble, Les Musiciens du Louvre, which is generally accepted to be the best available in a field of not very many.
 
The Orchestra of the Antipodes employ period instruments and have the kind of crisp, authentic sound we have come to expect from these kinds of revivals, something which is contradicted by the modern-dress staging depicted in photos in the booklet. It all looks and sounds very good, set in a fairly cavernous sounding hall. This is a live recording, and there is a certain amount of moving about and the pattering of not so tiny feet in some of the more mobile chorus scenes. None of this is very distracting, and in fact has its own kind of charm. My only worry is the sense of compression one gets at moments of high vocal drama, or in, say, the drum thwacks in ‘Mars bellone…’ in Act I scene III. Such things take away the sense of bottomless detail we have come to expect from modern recordings, but in general the soundstage is nice and wide and the balance good.
 
Kathryn MacCusker is a dramatic and impassioned Iphise. Paul Whelan’s deep and resonant voice makes for an impressive Aténor, as does that, in slightly lesser doses, of Stephen Bennett as King Teucer. The part of Dardanus himself is taken by Paul Agnew, who has plenty of range, from lovelorn youth to defiant champion. All are supported by a cracking choir, and there are many incredible harmonic moments from the orchestra which will satisfy Rameau fans or create new ones.
 
Which version you should choose – Anthony Walker or Marc Minkowski? Such opinions are always subjective and I’m basing my opinion on memory, but this ABC version is certainly good enough to justify attempting a comparison before purchasing. Archiv’s recording seems more reliable, but I get more of a sense of characterisation from some of the cast on ABC. It’s hard enough, bringing mythical characters to life through the tortuous twists and turns of French Baroque opera. This recording has the advantage of live stagecraft and excitement to carry us through the drama from beginning to end, rather than presenting a sequence of set-pieces connected by somewhat lacklustre recitatives. A final tambourin played through the wild applause of the audience is a nice touch as well. With recordings of this opera being thin enough on the ground this has to be a welcome addition to the catalogue, and is certainly worth seeking out.
 
Dominy Clements        
 



 


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