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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger



RECORDING OF THE MONTH

Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Les Indes galantes – Opéra ballet in a prologue and four entrées. (1735):
Libretto by Louis Fuzelier.
Prologue
Hébé – Danielle de Niese
Bellone – João Fernandes
L’Amour – Valérie Gabail
First entrée:  Le Turc généreux
Osman – Nicolas Cavallier
Emilie – Anna Maria Panzarella
Valère – Paul Agnew
Second entrée: Les Incas du Pérou
Huascar – Nathan Berg
Phani – Jaël Azzaretti
Don Carlos – François Piolino
Third entrée:  Les Fleurs-fête persane
Tacmas – Richard Croft
Ali – Nathan Berg
Zaïre – Gaële Le Roi
Fatime – Malin Hartelius
Fourth entrée:  Les Sauvages
Adario – Nicolas Rivenq
Damon – Christoph Strehl
Don Alvar – Christope Fel
Zima – Patricia Petibon
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Andrei Serban, stage director
Blanca Li, choreographer
Recorded live, Opéra National de Paris-Opéra Garnier on 22, 24, 25 September 2003.
Playable in all regions.
OPUS ARTE 0923 D [107:58 + 143:11]


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For musicians of today, Rameau is often associated with the study of music theory.  His Traité de l'harmonie (1722) was incredibly influential — and controversial — in its new conception of the triad as an invertible entity.  While his critics often cited his theoretical background as making him unfit for composition, his considerable success as a composer of keyboard music and, later, opera called this accusation into question.

Les Indes galantes, Rameau’s second operatic venture, was, in fact, the greatest success of his career: from 1735 to 1773, this work was performed, at least in part, 320 times. It stands as an example of a typically French genre, the opera-ballet, in which dance and opera are combined, with dance playing a slightly more “center-stage” role.  Comprising a prologue and four dramatically independent entrées, the story line is quite loose.  The prologue sets the stage with Hébé, goddess of youth, and Bellone, goddess of war.  Bellone captivates various youths with visions of martial grandeur while Hébé calls upon Cupid for aid in winning them back.  Cupid sends his disciples on a search for true love.  The four entrées are all stories in which true love is victorious over various situations, making Hébé and Cupid victorious in their conflict with Bellone. 

This recording, led by William Christie, is astonishing.  Christie, a naturalized French citizen, is considered a huge force in the world of Baroque performance and an even bigger force when the repertoire is French.  This production lives up to any expectation that his reputation creates.  Rameau’s music is glorious.  He writes for remarkable orchestral color with a keen sense of balance and grace.  It is true that these French Baroque operas are heavy on recitative; however, it is a far cry from Italian secco recitative as melody exists alongside declamation.  The airs are inventive, often virtuosic, but always beautiful.  As the liner notes explain, Rameau is the most important composer of dance music before Stravinsky.  This influence shows in a rhythmic vigor that is present throughout.  From the opening bars of the ouverture to the last moments of the final chaconne, sitting still is a challenge.  The extra features on this DVD set are entitled “Swinging Rameau.”  It is hard to think of a title more appropriate. 

Christie, along with his orchestra of expert players and cast of first rate singers, executes this music with obvious affection, passion, and style.  Music of the French Baroque is highly stylized, and it is in this arena that considerable challenge exists.  Appropriate use of inégalité, frequent meter changes according to word stress, and an extensive list of ornaments to be implemented according to careful understanding of word declamation are only three of the many skills that must be mastered in order to give a stylish, convincing performance of this music.  It is no surprise that this recording excels completely in these aspects.  The orchestra plays beautifully throughout, with meticulous attention to detail.

Les Arts Florissants is notable in its willingness and desire to include young, rising singers in its productions.  The result is unique.  The atmosphere in which full-blown stars such as Paul Agnew and Richard Croft perform with young (and incredible) singers is extremely exciting.  Danielle de Niese, who sings Hébé, may take the prize for the most impressive performance.  Her voice is ravishing, her diction always understandable, and her characterization no less than perfect. Her total grasp of the style makes it obvious that she did her homework in regard to declamation, ornamentation, etc.  However, when she walks on stage she brings none of the academic baggage that so often transforms historically informed performances into dry, lifeless affairs that, while “accurate” seem better suited for a morgue than for a concert hall.  She is proof that historically informed performances can also be engaging, riveting, enjoyable, and moving. 

The prologue delivers some of the most beautiful music in the recording.  João Fernandes’ performance as Bellone is vocally solid in most parts.  Any vocal deficiencies, however, are more than compensated for by his hilarious performance.  The French, it seems, had some fascination with blurring the lines of gender.  Fernandes’ gender-bending performance is truly beyond compare.  Valérie Gabail, as L’Amour, rings in considerably under the standard created by the other two prologue performers.  Her voice is quite nice, but she seems to lag behind the orchestra in many places, and her facial expression is often one of absolute terror.  Confidence and comfort on stage will be of utmost importance to her future performances.

The four entrées provide ample opportunity for the rest of the cast to demonstrate their considerable skill.  Anna Maria Panzarella gives an emotional and vocally impressive performance in Le Turc généreux.  Paul Agnew sings opposite her, and the two are a formidable partnership.  Other standouts in the rather long roster of singers are François Piolino, Richard Croft, Nicolas Rivenq, and Patricia Petibon.  The latter two sing romantic leads in the final entrée.  It is no exaggeration to say that under the spell of Rivenq and Petibon, the final moments are unforgettable. 

As this work is an opera-ballet, dancing plays a dominant role.  I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, very knowledgeable when it comes to ballet, but I can say that the intervening dance numbers are equally as enjoyable as the operatic sections.  Blanca Li’s choreography mixes traditional dancing with modern ideas all in the context of a Baroque aesthetic.  The result is often incomprehensible, but who cares?  It’s entertaining, stimulating, and overall quite beautiful.  All of the dancing comes naturally from the music:  nothing contrived, and there are no programmatic meanings forced onto Rameau’s dances.  It is lighthearted and all the more pleasant for being so.

As the plot is a pastiche of several stories, the visual style of the production seems to be a synthesis of infinite influences and ideas.  Literal, representational styles are mixed with abstract elements.  The effect is ephemeral and dream-like.  For an audience in the 18th century, the locales, characters, and cultures dealt with in Les Indes galantes were exotic and unattainable.  Through the design of this production, this feeling of exoticism and otherworldliness has been successfully reproduced for a 21st century audience. 

This DVD set is remarkable in all respects.  It is a must-have for opera lovers as well as Baroque music enthusiasts.

Jonathan Rohr

 

 



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