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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger


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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683 - 1764)
Zoroastre (1749)
Zoroastre - Mark Padmore (haute-contre)
Abramane - Nathan Berg (basse)
Amelite - Gaelle Mechaly (dessus)
Erinice - Anna Maria Panzarella (dessus)
Zopire - Matthieu Lecroart (basse)
Narbanor - Francois Bazola (basse)
Oromases - Eric Martin Bonnet (basse)
Cephie - Stephanie Revidat (dessus)
La Vengeance - Matthieu Lecroart (basse)
Ariman - Eric Martin Bonnet (basse)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie (director)
Recorded 28 August - 10 September 2002, Theatre de Poissy, Poissy
ERATO 0927 43182-2 [3CDs: 68.08+55.51+38.35]



When Rameau's 'Zoroastre' was first performed in 1749, at the Academie Royale de Musique (the Paris Opera), Rameau was at the height of his powers and his music dominated the Paris Opera stage. 'Zoroastre' was given a spectacular production and was performed by a stellar cast, but it only ran for a respectable 25 performances. This remarkably direct work had a number of aspects that disturbed the conservative operatic tastes of the time. There was no prologue glorifying the King, the opera plunged straight into the action. This action derived from ancient Persian rather than classical myth or medieval romance. The plot presented a power struggle between good and evil and concentrated almost exclusively on the principal characters, Zoroastre the religious reformer, a devotee of Ahura Mazda (the Supreme Being) and Abramane, an ambitious sorcerer and servant of Ahriman (the Spirit of Evil).

When the opera was revived in 1756, composer and librettist revised the work thoroughly. Acts 2, 3 and 5 were substantially recast and the two main female characters were given far stronger roles, their romantic entanglements forming a greater feature of the plot in this version. But even with the revisions, 'Zoroastre' remains a remarkably direct ‘tragédie en musique’.

This directness may be partly explained by the libretto, where Louis de Cahusac uses the work as a didactic platform to propound ideas related to Freemasonry. Quite how many of these Masonic elements appealed to Rameau is open to debate. But he took advantage of Cahusac's clear-cut, dramatic plot to write music of great variety and power. The struggle between good and evil is reflected in the voice types of the protagonists as Zoroastre (here played by Mark Padmore) is a high voiced haute-contre and Abramene (Nathan Berg) is a deep bass. Rameau's rich soundworld is put to good use as the action varies from tender love scenes between Zoroastre and his beloved Amelite (Gaelle Mechaly) to the demonic incantations of Abramane, Erinice (Anna Maria Panzarella) and their hordes.

From the opening notes of the overture you know you are in good hands. Its dramatic opening, depicting Abramane's barbarous rule, is played arrestingly by Les Arts Florissants under William Christie. Christie relishes all the detail of this music, but his attention to detail never causes the music to falter; it flows ever onward. This is to great advantage in a work like 'Zoroastre' where Rameau increasingly blurs the distinction between recitative and aria so that each act becomes one single flow.

As Zoroastre, Mark Padmore is ideally cast and his flexible tenor never sounds strained in this stratospheric music. He is at his best in the love scenes with Amelite, where his plangent tenor fits the music beautifully. Given the scarcity of singers able to bring off these taxing haute-contre parts, it is perhaps churlish to complain, but in the more dramatic scenes I felt that his tone was lacking in brilliance. As his beloved, Amelite, Gaelle Mechaly has little to do but sound ravishing. She is one of those slightly flat operatic characters to whom things happen. But in her love scenes, she combines with Mark Padmore in a truly melting manner.

As Abramane, Nathan Berg certainly chews the scenery. Rameau gives Abramane much dramatic music and Berg relishes it. As the more equivocal Erinice, Anna Maria Panzarella lacks an element of steel that I felt would be suitable for this character, though she sings the music superbly.

As is to be expected in a performance from this source, all the cast sing and ornament the music with wonderful style. Whilst not all the solo voices are of the first order, their sense of musical style is impeccable. Everyone contributes in a way that makes it seem as if they have been singing this music all their lives. This is something that we now rather take for granted, but it is due to the work of William Christie and Les Arts Florissants that we now understand and appreciate French music of this period.

With an orchestra of fifty and a chorus of twenty-five, Les Arts Florissants are the real heroes of the opera. Rameau is at his most inventive in creating different soundworlds for the two opposing forces and both orchestra and chorus never fail to do justice to Rameau's inventions. Oromases (Eric Martin Bonnet), the King of the Genies and a supporter of Zoroastre, is always supported by a halo of double-stopped strings. But the forces of Darkness rather get all the best tunes. Rameau's use of divided bassoons and divided lower strings provides some astonishing textures which Christie and Les Arts Florissants tackle with relish. Christie's handling of the opera is exemplary; his pacing is frequently swift but never rushed. He displays a fine understanding of the structure of Rameau's wonderfully flexible scenes.

The recording is based on a series of live performances that Les Arts Florissants gave. For these live performances, a number of the dances were cut. But Christie includes them in an appendix on the set.

'Zoroastre' has been recorded once before, by Sigiswald Kuijken on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi in 1984 with John Elwes in the title role, but this version is apparently not currently available. Both Kuijken and Christie have chosen the 1756 version as the basis for their performances. Whilst I can understand their wish to record the composer's final thoughts, it would be fascinating to hear what the even more revolutionary 1749 version sounds like.

Robert Hugill

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