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Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU (1712-1778)
Le Devin du Village
Caroline Mutel (soprano)
Cyrille Dubois (tenor)
Frédérick Caton (bass)
Les Nouveaux Caractères/Sébastien d’Hérin
rec. 2017, Théâtre Royal de la Reine du Château de Versailles

Most people will know Jean-Jacques Rousseau as philosopher and man who played a prominent part in enlightening the whole of Europe. But music? Surely his endeavours as amateur composer were obscured by time for a reason? Well, we shall see.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712, the son of a watchmaker. During his youth he developed a keen interest in music and later gave lessons. Becoming familiar with Italian music in Venice, he composed his first ballet, Les Muses Galantes, in 1742, at the age of thirty. When moving to Paris in 1850 he even tried to make a living as composer. Two years later he composed what was to become his most famous work, the one featured on this recording: Le Devin du Village. Its highly popular duet ‘Non, Colette n’est point trompeuse’ was even rearranged by Ludwig van Beethoven. Thanks to the popularity of the opera Rousseau was able to secure a position at the Encyclopedie: the Lettre sur la Musique Francaise, where he published music articles. But Rousseau did not confine himself to composing and writing about music. At the time he wrote his ballet he had already developed his own system of musical notation which featured numbering so that it would be compatible with typography. However, it was rejected by the Academie Des Sciences. Had not philosophy largely taken over for Rousseau and the big success of Emile (published in 1762) proven him right in this endeavour, he might indeed have become a well-known composer.

The present performance and the recording were made possible by Château de Versailles Spectacles, who are devoted to breathing new life into neglected music and plays that once formed an intrinsic part of the cultural life at the palace. They have realized three other opera projects so far, and I am sure more are to follow. Produced to the highest standards, this is a marvellous series and deserves to be supported. There is even the opportunity of witnessing a production at the Théâtre Royal de la Reine du Château de Versailles in person – a very tempting idea! The CD is accompanied by a DVD of the performance at the theatre at Versailles, which is a visual treat in itself. But then I am an aficionado of baroque theatres with their splendid scenery, and the soffits that come descending as clouds for those obligatory deus-ex-machina moments… The disks come in a very elegant design and are accompanied by a well-composed booklet in French and English.

The story of the two lovers Colette and Colin, who finally find to each other with the help of the village’s soothsayer, is pretty simple. The music, too, is of a plain, pastoral character. Rather than (only) assigning this to Rousseau’s lack of musical talent, this was also due to the fact that he was hugely opposed to the heavily harmonized French music tradition and believed that the French language was not made for melodic song. Astonishingly, Le Devin du Village remained in the repertoire for more than 70 years, and was even performed in this, the queen’s very own theatre at Versailles, with Marie Antoinette as Colette! The present recording, however, sees the soprano Caroline Mutel sing Colette’s part, which can only benefit the recording especially in regards to her headier note – it is a joy to listen to her rendering of the role. With Scylla et Glaucus and L’Europe Galante, she has also experience in singing in previous performances at the Opéra Royal de Versailles. Cyrille Dubois (tenor) convinces as Colin. Opera engagements have so far brought him to Glyndebourne, La Scala and l’Opéra de Paris. The bass Frédérick Caton takes the role of Le Devin (the soothsayer). He is a former member of the Atelier Lyrique and of the ensemble of the Opéra national de Lyon. As all three roles in Rousseau’s opera are not very musically demanding, there might have been the possibility of poor and superficial rendering. Fortunately, all three singers have avoided falling into this pit and, rather, turned that plainness into something beautifully expressive. Harpsichordist and acclaimed conductor Sébastien d'Hérin has gained experience as conductor of many leading orchestras across France, before founding – together with Caroline Mutel – Les Nouveaux Caractères in 2006. They play on historic instruments and are especially versatile in exploring baroque repertoire. A previous engagement at the Opéra Royal de Versailles saw them perform Monteverdi’s Orfeo. This recording profits from their skilled experience and their thoroughly trained conductor.

Le Devin du Village is quite a jolly, entertaining piece and the music suits nicely, but most of it might (again) soon be forgotten due its lack of a distinctive compositional language. It is much more interesting in a historical context as a piece of its time that was designed to create nothing less than a new French school of opera – something which it would have never been able to achieve, both story- and music-wise. This task was left for Christoph Willibald Glück, whose Iphigénie en Tauride and Alceste were hugely admired by Rousseau, and it must have given him enormous satisfaction to see the task he set out on being successful taken up by Glück shortly before he died.

Being able to explore Rousseau’s music and see the piece performed on a baroque stage is marvellous in its own right. Composing this opera before becoming one of the most influential philosophers of the enlightenment was, after all, a very worthy and admirable venture for a music lover such as Rousseau.
Maximilian Burgdörfer
see also article on JJ Rouseau's Julie : the new Heloise: letters from two lovers, living in a small town at the foot of the Alps) Paris 1813 by Len Mullenger

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