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