Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764) Dardanus – opera in five acts with prologue
Dardanus – Bernard Richter (tenor)
Iphise – Gaëlle Arquez (soprano)
Anténor – Benoît Arnould (baritone)
Isménor – João Fernandes (bass)
Teucer – Alain Buet (bass)
Vénus, une Phrygienne – Sabine Devieilhe (soprano)
Amour, une Phrygienne – Emmanuelle de Negri (soprano)
Arcas – Romain Champion (tenor)
Ensemble Pygmalion/Raphael Pichon
rec. Opéra Royal du Château de Versailles, 14 and 16 February 2012 ALPHA 964 [80:31 + 64:36]
Dardanus (1739) was Rameau’s fifth opera. As each one appeared they caused a stir amongst Paris’s musical cognoscenti. Some regarded the composer’s vivid innovations in music-drama as unsettling the conventions established by Lully in preceding generation. This particular work incited comment for its considerable number of purely musical interludes - principally dances. That aspect is one reason for its comparative fame today amongst Rameau’s operas. Also notable was its improbable plot involving a battle with a monster in the last three acts. These things led to a revised revival of the piece in 1744.
This set is a re-issue of a live recording — as evidenced by applause at the end of the second and last Acts — from the Opéra Royal du Château de Versailles directed by Raphael Pichon. It is good for the catalogue to remain stocked with recordings of Rameau’s operas since these have not yet caught up as quickly or as completely as the discography for his great contemporary in the genre, Handel. Given the dearth of recordings, Pichon’s inevitably invites comparison with Marc Minkowski’s on Archiv. Whereas Minkowski recorded the original version, Pichon opts for the revision of 1744 with its fewer dances and instrumental diversions. Even with that, however, his interpretation is not as vivid as Minkowski’s. Ensemble Pygmalion do not generally characterise the dances as idiomatically or vigorously as the Musiciens du Louvre for Minkowski do with the music’s particular rhythms and distinctive scorings. The Entrée pour les Guerriers in Act One, for example, is an exception. The final Chaconne also strikes me as a little unsteady compared to the indefatigable course which Minkowski steers at the climax.
Pichon’s team of vocal soloists are more than serviceable, and they offer much that is enjoyable, if heard on their own terms. Again, they suffer in comparison with Minkowski’s set. Where Sabine Devieilhe sings with a pure, incisive tone as Vénus for Pichon, Mireille Delunsch commands more authority. As the baddie of the drama, Teucer, both Alain Buet and Russell Smythe for Pichon and Minkowski respectively have a tendency to belt out their parts, with only approximate regard for seamlessness and accuracy of tone. All of that is in keeping with the role, though Buet could certainly sound more menacing in Act Five. João Fernandes lacks some charisma as the magician Isménor, though Benoît Arnould’s Anténor is better in this respect. As the lovers Dardanus and Iphise — around whose fraught romance the drama revolves — Bernard Richter and Gaëlle Arquez are variable. The haute-contre role of Dardanus is generally within Richter’s reach, but sometimes his singing borders on the whining. You can hear this in the sustained writing for him in the notable prison aria ‘Lieux funestes’ - newly composed by Rameau for the 1744 version. This problem does not beset John Mark Ainsley on the Archiv recording. Gaëlle Arquez achieves a great nobility in her performance with a well-rounded tone at the lower end of her range although she is slightly shrill higher up.
Such flaws as there are, then, do not fatally undermine the enjoyment to be had from this recording — and there are no flies on the chorus. That said, it does not displace the Musiciens du Louvre’s account as the benchmark. Pichon’s set is still worth investigating by those interested in Rameau as it gives a chance to hear the revised version. Raymond Leppard’s earlier recording was also of Rameau’s first version, but as a fairly leisurely performance on modern instruments it does not bear direct comparison with these two others under consideration. In addition, those listeners who become exasperated with the frequent interruption of dances in Rameau’s stage works may find Pichon’s reading dramatically more cogent and tight.