Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Zaïs (1748)
Zaïs – Julian Prégardien
Zélidie – Sandrine Piau
Oromazès – Aimery Lefèvre
Cindor – Benoît Arnould
Sylphide/High Priestess of Love – Amel Brahim-Djelloul
Amour – Hasnaa Bennani
Sylphe – Zachary Wilder
Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Les Talens Lyrique/Christophe Rousset)
rec. Opéra Royal du Château de Versailles, 16-18 November 2014
APARTE AP109 [3 CDs: 60:00 + 67:00 + 31:00]

Rameau wrote Zaïs in 1748 for the court of Louis XV. It was part of the highly fashionable genre of "la féerie", set in the enchanted world of Middle Eastern myth. Zaïs, King of the Sylphs (and thus immortal), loves the shepherdess Zélidie. The opera concerns a number of trials and tests they both must undergo in order for their love to prosper. The trials, together with the elemental themes of bringing order out of chaos, link the opera to the symbolism of Freemasonry, decades before Mozart got round to it in The Magic Flute, and also to several other key ideas of the European Enlightenment which France was spearheading at the time. So while the plot is pretty conventional, it's intellectually interesting and, more importantly, the music is among Rameau's best.

He sets the bar high at the very beginning. The extraordinary Overture depicts the disentangling of Chaos in a manner much more dynamic and challenging than even Haydn. Winds trill, drums boom and strings run to depict the Four Elements pulling themselves apart from the primordial soup. It's tremendous in conception and exhilarating in the realisation, and it showcases the instrumental playing, which is one of the chief glories of this set. Yet again, Les Talens Lyrique show that they play this music as to the manner born, and Rousset's direction is a model of clarity and dynamism.

Their style and flair is one of the constants of this set. The dances, such an important part of the French Baroque, are played with great élan and an unarguable sense of forward movement. Furthermore, the frequent supernatural moments all come to life magnificently, with special effects and spot-lit instruments to allow the whole thing to feel very present. The brief appearances of the Namur Chamber Choir show that they are utterly sensitive to the style as well.

It really helps to have a French singing cast who sound as though they've grown up singing this stuff. As Zaïs himself, Julian Prégardien is marvellous, and in fact does an extremely good job of sounding quite unlike himself, inhabiting the haute-contre style with surprising success. If you were to compare his singing here with, say, his Pedrillo in René Jacobs' recent Entführung aus dem Serail (review), you wouldn't think they're the same singer. The upper register is secure without being nasal, and he has a beautiful floaty quality to his voice that carries many of his arias. Sandrine Piau sings Zélidie with predictable beauty and sensitivity. There is richness and a fully rounded quality to her voice that offsets the often ethereal quality found by Prégardien, and she plays the innocent shepherdess with just the right quantity of simplicity and naiveté. Benoît Arnould brings both sympathy and bluff assertiveness to the role of Cindor, Zaïs' companion. Aimery Lefèvre takes the role of Oromazès, King of the Genies, with authority, relishing his fruity vowel sounds magnificently. Hasnaa Bennani sings the goddess Amour with languid beauty and sensual feel for the line, and in the double role of the Sylph and the High Priestess of Love, Amel Brahim-Djelloul sounds voluptuous and rich.

The presiding genius over the whole affair is Christophe Rousset who, as in his other Baroque recordings for Aparte, including Lully’s Phaéton (review), shows that he is one of the world's leading authorities in this music. French Baroque opera might not necessarily be your cup of tea, but even sceptics must take their hat off to Rousset's scholarship, sensitivity to the style and collegiate way of working. Number after number brings great beauty and winning style, and I urge you to explore it.

Simon Thompson

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