François REBEL (1701 - 1775)/François FRANCOEUR (1698 - 1787)
Zélindor, roi des Sylphes [47:09]
Suite from 'Le Trophée'* [14:27]
Ah Young Hong (Une Nymphe, Une Sylphide); Heidi Grant Murphy (Zélindor, La Muse*) (soprano); Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Zélindor, Le Génie*) (haute-contre); William Sharp (Zulim) (bass)
The Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Chorus/Ryan Brown
rec. 15-16 October 2007, Music Center, Strathmore, North Bethesda, Maryland, USA. DDD
NAXOS 8.660224 [61:36]


Throughout history composers have finished incomplete compositions or filled in the missing parts. Mozart's Requiem immediately springs to mind. He himself finished a symphony which his friend Johann Michael Haydn had started, but wasn't able to complete because of lack of time. But two composers cooperating in writing music - that hasn't happened very often. The cooperation between François Rebel and François Francoeur lasted almost fifty years, and that must be unique in history. How exactly they divided the duties is not known. When asked about it they insisted: "This piece is by both of us".

François Rebel was a son of Jean-Féry Rebel, who today is best-known for his ballet suite 'Les Éléments'. He was educated as a violinist and entered the orchestra of the Paris Opéra in 1714 at the age of 13. François Francoeur was also the son of a musician: his father played bass violin and was a member of the élite 24 Violons du Roi. He entered the opera orchestra as well, in 1710, when he was just 12. Here the two met, and soon they started to work closely together in the field of music for the theatre.

Their first tragédie en musique was Pirame et Thisbé, which was first performed in 1726. It was called "L'Opéra des enfants" (the children's opera), because of the composers' young age. It was even suggested that more experienced composers had been involved in the composition. The two works on this disc were written in 1745.

Zélindor is situated in the world of the sylphs (or sylphids). These are mythological creatures, who appear in the writings of the 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus, who described them as invisible beings of the air (the elements). They don't appear in classical mythology. This divertissement is about Zélindor, king of the Sylphs, who has fallen in love with a mortal, Zirphé. He is criticised for that by Zulim. Zélindor for his part is afraid she won't return his love, whereas she is dreaming about him and wishes her dream to come true. Zélindor orders that to happen, but she can't see him. When she insists on his becoming visible he fulfils her wishe, and as she answers his love they sing of their happiness. Zélindor calls on all the elements to celebrate his union with Zirphé in a final ballet. The libretto was written by François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif, one of France's most celebrated poets.

He also provided the lyrics of Le Trophée, which was the prologue to Zélindor. In a way it is a bit odd that this work is performed here after Zélindor, instead of preceding it. Here a suite from the work is played, consisting of a number of instrumental movements and two airs. The text is in praise of Louis XV, who had commissioned Zélindor to be performed during the winter season in Versailles.

Le Trophée is a more extraverted piece than Zéphire, which is generally more modest and rather intimate. Being a divertissement it is not really dramatic, but that doesn't mean it is not theatrical. And that is exactly what this performance is not. I am sorry to say that it is often not even diverting. The fact that this work isn't dramatic is no excuse for the rather lacklustre and bland interpretation it receives here.

Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is one of France's most famous haute-contres, but here he seems uncomfortable. His top notes don't come off as effortlessly as they did earlier in his career. Heidi Grant Murphy is alright in her part, but her consistent vibrato is disappointing. The same is true of William Sharp, whose singing is less than idiomatic, and who makes little impression as Zulim. Most satisfying is Ah Young Hong, who has a lovely voice and whose singing is very stylish. The playing of the orchestra is not as colourful as one may expect in French baroque music for the theatre.

All in all I am disappointed with this recording, in particular as these compositions are unknown and recorded here for the first time. Because of this it is hard to assess the true merits of the music. The first performances were a great success. And other music by Rebel and Francoeur I have heard - in particular 'Pirame et Thisbé' - is of excellent quality. That suggests these two pieces should also be quite good, but unfortunately this disc does little to convince today's music-lover of its pleasures.

Johan van Veen