Jean-Philippe Rameau is today recognized as one of the geniuses in music history, especially in the realm of opera. He lived at a time of great aesthetic change, and that made him almost inevitably rather controversial. He had some ardent admirers, but he was also criticized. For some he moved too far away from the operatic classical style which had been established by Lully. Others considered him old-fashioned, especially those who admired Italian opera. The latter is parodied in his comedy Platée, in the aria 'Aux langueurs d'Apollon' (track 21).
This disc is more than just a random selection of airs and dances from Rameau's operas. The title suggests the thread of the programme. Love is the central issue of Rameau’s operas. Here the pieces are selected and arranged in such a way that the trials and tribulations of love in the life of a young girl are exposed through extracts from the various operas. At first she is rather naive, thinking that she is immune from "Love's wiles and vicissitudes". Then Love comes into her life and we experience what this does to her and how she deals with it. Confusion, drama, jealousy and bitterness are the next stages. She bursts into tears and then falls into a sleep from which she is shaken by a storm. Despair and grief lead to madness - that's where the aria from Platée is included. The story ends on a positive note as Zima, heroine from Les Sauvages, the last entrée from Les Indes Galantes, sings: "Pleasure and games, rule now (...) Nature, who made our hearts, takes care always to guide them". The latter sentence is very much a reflection of the ideal of Rameau, whose music belongs to the age of the Enlightenment.
In the 19th century it was Hector Berlioz, who rediscovered and greatly admired Rameau. He called the aria 'Tristes apprêts' from Castor et Pollux (track 19) one of the greatest creations of musical drama. One of the features of Rameau's operas is that the orchestra is used for dramatic purposes. It is in particular here that he moves away from classical French opera where there was mostly a rather loose connection between the content of an aria and its instrumental scoring. It is quite astonishing to hear how effectively Rameau uses instrumental colours to illustrate and underpin the feelings which are expressed in an aria. That is the case in 'Tristes apprêts', but also in 'Un horizon serein' from Les Boréades (track 8). The arias themselves are also more dramatic than in the operas of, for instance, Lully. 'Pour voltiger dans le bocage' from Les Paladins (track 10) is a good example. The frequent silences are an illustration of the text: "The bird flees captivity to flutter about the grove. What silence reigns when it is caged, what sweet song is heard when it is free to fly". The bird is embodied here by a petite flûte. The dances in Lully's operas are usually just that: opportunities to dance, especially by the then King Louis XIV himself. That is quite different here: the dances have a dramatic role and create the atmosphere which suits the relevant phase in the drama. The contredanse from Les Fêtes de l'Hymen et de l'Amour (track 5) is a telling example. Another is the contredanse en rondeau from Les Boréades (track 9) with its notable role for the horns.
This disc not only demonstrates the versatility of Rameau, but also that of Sabine Devieilhe. The innocence of the first items comes off perfectly. The only piece not by Rameau, Feuillages verds naissez, a brunette which is attributed to Marc-Antoine Charpentier (track 2) is sung with refinement, partly without accompaniment, partly with just one flute - here played by Kossenko. It is indicative of the dramatic concept that she is roughly interrupted by the orchestra with the overture from Pygmalion. 'Viens, Hymen' - again with Kossenko playing the solo flute - is exquisitely sung and one of the highlights of this disc. Two other arias which I especially enjoyed are 'Coulez, mes pleurs' from Zaïs (track 15) and the aria I have already mentioned, 'Tristes apprêts', which is given a superb performance by Ms Devieilhe and Les Ambassadeurs. It is a bit unfair to talk about highlights, because this disc as a whole is excellent. In some arias Ms Devieilhe uses a shade too much vibrato, and that also goes for the sopranos of the choir which participates in two items.
As already stated, Rameau's genius is generally recognized. Some of his operas are regularly performed and a number are available on disc. For those who don't know his music that well, this disc is an exceptionally good introduction. Those who know him rather well will greatly enjoy these fine performances.
Johan van Veen