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Rameau Achante 9029669394
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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Achante et Céphise
Pastorale héroïque en trois actes (Premiere: 1751 Paris)
Libretto by Jean-François Marmontel
Sabine Devieilhe (soprano), Cyrille Dubois (tenor), Judith van Wanroij (soprano), David Witczak (baritone)
Les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles/Olivier Schneebeli (chorus master)
Les Ambassadeurs ~ La Grande Écurie/Alexis Kossenko
rec. December 2020, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Liban de Paris
French libretto provided with English translations
Track & cast lists at end of review
ERATO 9029669394 [65:41 + 64:44]

The Erato label has resumed its advocacy of the great French baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau with this world premiere commercial recording of the rarity Achante et Céphise. It quickly becomes apparent that despite having been undeservedly overlooked for over two centuries, this is an opera of genuine merit.

Erato has built up a considerable recorded legacy of works by Rameau. Notably, to mark the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Rameau’s death in 2014, a twenty-seven CD box set Rameau – The Opera Collection was released, containing twelve operas (not all complete) recorded 1972-2002. Since then, Erato has reissued several more Rameau recordings, for example Dardanus, La Princesse de Navarre and Platée and aria collections, including a particular favourite album from soprano Sabine Devieilhe, Le Grand Théâtre de l'amour.

Rameau became the leading composer of late baroque French opera, taking over the mantle of Jean-Baptiste Lully. In addition, Rameau attained a reputation as a composer of keyboard works whom some regard as the equal of François Couperin (aka Couperin le Grand). He was almost fifty when he turned his attention to writing stage works, beginning in 1733 with his first opera Hippolyte et Aricie. He went on to write some thirty French baroque operas in the styles known as tragédie en musique, opéra-ballet, comédie-ballet, pastorale héroïque, actes de ballet. The best known of his operas and the most recorded include Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), Les Indes Galantes (1735), Castor et Pollux (1737), Dardanus (1739) and Les Boréades (1763).

Rameau was commissioned by the court to write a work for the festivities celebrating the birth in 1751 of Louis Joseph Xavier, Duke of Burgundy, grandson to Louis XV (1710-1774) and heir apparent to the throne of France. For his libretto Rameau collaborated with dramatist Jean-François de Marmontel, resulting in Achante et Céphise, ou La sympathie, to use its full name, a three-act opera written in the form of a pastorale héroïque. In addition to the sung component of the opera, sparkling brightly is a series of short, orchestral divertissements including a ritournelle, tambourin, loure, chaconne, menuet, gavotte and rigaudon.

Achante et Céphise received its first performance in 1751, staged by the opera company l’Académie Royale de Musique (a former name of the Paris Opéra) at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. It ran for fourteen performances before the score was consigned to the drawer and soon lay gathering dust. In 1983, on the three hundredth anniversary of Rameau’s birth it was revived for a broadcast on BBC Radio 3 with Trevor Pinnock conducting the English Concert and Choir. Next, in 1996, musicologists Sylvie Bouissou and Robert Fajon prepared a ‘scholarly edition’ for the publisher Billaudot. Another revival was given in 2012 by University College Opera under Charles Peebles at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London. Remarkably, two hundred and sixty-nine years had elapsed between the premiere of Achante et Céphise and this recording in 2020.

Merging mythology and fairy-tale, Marmontel’s libretto has at its core the battle between the opposing forces of good and evil as personified by the good fairy Zirphile and evil genie Oroès. Specifically, the libretto concerns the tribulations of the two lovers, a shepherd and shepherdess, Achante and Céphise, who endure torments caused by Oroès who wants Céphise for himself. Zirphile gives the couple a magic bracelet serving as a talisman to form a telepathic affinity (the sympathie of the full title) with each other. At Oroès’ command, Achante and Céphise are swept away by the north winds, separated and banished. Zirphile is able to liberate the lovers by employing her magic powers through the bracelet to conquer Oroès and his genies.

The neglect of Achante et Céphise is very likely owing to the opera being a commission tailored for a specific royal event celebrating the Bourbon monarchy. In the finale, ‘Triumph! Victory! A Bourbon prince is born let us give thanks to Cupid. Triumph! Victory!’ is sung a number of times and at the conclusion, an overblown, fifteen-line final chorus begins and ends with the words ‘Long live the line of our kings’. These loyal references to the Bourbon monarchy in Marmontel’s libretto seem contrived, as if thrown in at the last minute. As a royal commission, the staging of the opera at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal would have been extravagant, featuring the leading singers of the day, and Rameau’s score necessitated orchestral and choral forces considered large for the time. It is also worth bearing in mind that Achante et Céphise was then regarded as a complex work, technically challenging for players to perform and challenging the audience with several new elements.

Now a single orchestra, Les Ambassadeurs ~ La Grande Écurie was created through the merger between two period instrument orchestras, Les Ambassadeurs and La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy. To honour the identity, performing tradition and achievement of each orchestra, it was decided to retain each name side by side. For this recording, the orchestra includes in its ranks seven early music students from the Conservatoire à rayonnement Régional de Paris. During the recording sessions, conductor Alexis Kossenko has endeavoured to keep as authentically as possible to Rameau’s original intentions and his players employ aspects of historically informed performance practice. Prior to the premiere, Rameau made some slight revisions to his score but Kossenko has here chosen to restore the composer’s original intentions and used an edition of the score prepared by Sylvie Bouissou and Robert Fajon. He has recreated the size of orchestra that Rameau had at his disposal in 1751 for the first performances, being fifty-five players: twenty-seven strings, a wind section comprising of four natural horns and two natural trumpets, four flutes, four oboes, two clarinets, two musettes, four bassoons, and a single percussionist. The two clarinets Rameau included in his score was one of the first occasions they had been used as solo instruments in an opera. Replicating Rameau’s instrumentation as far as possible Kossenko includes a separate basso continuo section consisting of a harpsichord, three cellos and a double bass that would have accompanied the sung recitatives, an approach that works splendidly here.

There are French singers in three of the four leading parts. The title roles are taken by the celebrated soprano Sabine Devieilhe, who is in glorious voice as Céphise and tenor Cyrille Dubois, who sings handsomely as her lover Achante. The eponymous duo give an outstanding performance of the Act Two duet Notre arrêt va se prononcer, as the lovers wait anxiously in Temple of Cupid for the oracle’s judgement on their fate. Devieilhe’s special gift for expression is notably compelling throughout the opera. Ranging from communicating small details to the overall mood, she instinctively communicates Céphise’s emotional tension unerringly. Also standing out in Act Two is Amants qui vous fuyez, cessez de vous contraindre, which Devieilhe sings radiantly, as Céphise makes her plea to all couples not to waste their opportunities for love. Clear and smooth with an appealingly warm tone, Dubois is heard at his finest in Achante’s act two air Est-ce un crime que d’enflammer declaring how fulfilling it is to forgive the one you love, but with regard to Dubois’ characterisation of Achante, overall, I wanted a touch more involvement.

In the part of wicked genie Oroès is David Witczak, a French baritone whom I am hearing for the first time. His performance is simply top drawer, as he ably displays a dark, expressive tone which is strongly projected to gratifying effect. His Act One, Scene Seven trio Ah que mes sens sont soulagés! is especially successful, feelings like a pivotal moment when the villainous Oroès shows just a small gesture of humanity by allowing the heartbroken Céphise and the incarcerated Achante to be reunited for a single day, prior to taking her all for himself.

Dutch-born soprano, Judith van Wanroij, who is predominantly French based, gives an engaging and characterful portrayal as the good fairy Zirphile. In the rondeau from Act One Tendres amants, consolez-vous, with her clear tone Wanroij convinces as Zirphile, inspiring the lovers not to lose heart and believe that they will find happiness together. Maintaining the high standard, the smaller vocal parts are favourably cast too, although of course some of the solos are more striking than others. Conspicuous in Act One is the fairy’s air Que la sympathie a d'attraits! sung enchantingly by French soprano Marine Lafdal-Franc. French bass-baritone Arnaud Richard excels, too, exhibiting rich, firm tone in the hunter’s air L'Amour est heureux par lui-même from Act Two.

A highly assured conductor, Kossenko inspires his period instrument orchestra who responds by producing vivid and spirited playing. Especially impressive is the way he and his players manage Rameau’s abundant shifts in tempi, dynamic and temperament. There is no prologue to the opera which begins excitingly with a celebratory and colourful overture. Explosive sound effects from the percussionist depict a firework display honouring the birth of the infant Duke. To my particular delight, the six natural brass instruments add a distinctive character to the overall orchestral sound. Highly individual, too, is the sound of the pair of musettes, a type of bagpipe. Kossenko is also conducting Les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, a group clearly impeccably prepared by French chorus master Olivier Schneebeli. The chorus numbers twenty-four here, a figure that includes eight guest soloists or cast who aren’t regular chorus members. Making a valuable contribution to the success of the opera, the chorus with its numerous short passages is entirely responsive to the import of Marmontel’s text.

The sound technicians at the Cathédrale have achieved first class sound in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Liban de Paris, an enduringly popular recording location. It is no surprise that the cathedral acoustics cause some slight reverberation which is scarcely noticeable and does not at all impede enjoyment.

Well presented, this box set includes a substantial booklet containing a full French libretto with English translations, a track list, synopsis, listings of chorus and orchestra members, together with several photographs from the recording sessions. There are also helpful articles by conductor Alexis Kossenko and musicologist Benoît Dratwicki, and the highly informative main essay is written by Rameau biographer and early music specialist Sylvie Bouissou.

Although Achante et Céphise was premiered and quickly abandoned after its premiere, Kossenko and his forces have breathed new life into the opera with this exceptional first commercial recording. Kossenko’s next project with Les Ambassadeurs ~ La Grande Écurie is to be a first recording of Zoroastre using Rameau’s original 1749 score rather than the much-revised version of 1756, the one now invariably heard.

Michael Cookson

Céphise – Sabine Devieilhe (soprano)
Achante – Cyrille Dubois (tenor)
The genie Oroès – David Witczak (baritone)
The good fairy Zirphile – Judith Van Wanroij (soprano)
The high Priestess – Jehanne Amzal (soprano)
Coryphée / Shepherd – Artavazd Sargsyan (tenor)
Coryphée / Hunter – Arnaud Richard (bass-baritone)
Fairy / Shepherdess – Marine Lafdal-Franc (soprano)
Second Priestess / Délie – Anne-Sophie Petit (soprano)
Third Priestess – Floriane Hasler (mezzo-soprano)

Track listing
CD 1 
1. Ouverture
2. Act 1: Ritournelle
3. Act 1: "Céphise!" (Achante, Céphise)
4. Act 1: "Tendres Amants, Consolez-Vous" (Zirphile)
5. Act 1: "Quel Espoir Peut Nous Consoler?" (Zirphile, Céphise)
6. Act 1: "Des Dieux la Sagesse Profonde" (Zirphile, Choeur)
7. Act 1: "Vaine Espérance, Hélas!" (Céphise, Zirphile)
8. Act 1: "Par Le Pouvoir Secret de Cet Anneau Magique" (Zirphile, Achante, Céphise)
9. Act 1: Air Gracieux
10. Act 1: "Que la Sympathie a D'attraits!" (Une Fée)
11. Act 1: Première Et Deuxième Gavotte
12. Act 1: "Adieu, Conservez Bien Ce Gage" (Zirphile, Achante, Céphise, Choeur)
13. Act 1: "Non, Je Ne Serai Point Impunément Jaloux!" (Le Génie, Céphise)
14. Act 1: "Triomphez Belle Céphise" (Deux Coryphées, Choeur)
15. Act 1: Entrée Des Suivants Du Génie
16. Act 1: "L'inconstance Renouvelle" (Premier Coryphée)
17. Act 1: Loure
18. Act 1: "D'une Jeunesse Éternelle" (Deuxième Coryphée)
19. Act 1: Premier Et Deuxième Air en Mouvement de Chaconne Vive
20. Act 1: Premier Et Deuxième Tambourin
21. Act 1: "Un Immortel Vous Cède la Victoire" (Deux Coryphées)
22. Act 1: "De L'amant qui Vous Adore" (Premier Coryphée)
23. Act 1: "Un Immortel Vous Cède la Victoire" (Choeur)
24. Act 1: "A Sa Voix, Les Vents en Fureur" (Deux Coryphées)
25. Act 1: "Un Immortel Vous Cède la Victoire" (Choeur) [Reprise]
26. Act 1: "Achante, Où Sommes-Nous?" (Céphise, Le Génie)
27. Act 1: "Ah Que Mes Sens Sont Soulagés!" (Céphise, Achante, Le Génie)
28. Act 1: "Le Temple de L'amour Est Voisin de Ces Lieux" (Achante, Céphise)
29. Act 2: Prélude Vivement
30. Act 2: "Amour, Je Ne Viens Point Au Pied de Ton Autel" (Le Génie)
31. Act 2: "Amour, Écoutez Nos Voux" (Choeur)
32. Act 2: "Au Culte Du Dieu Du Bonheur" (La Grande Prêtresse, Prêtresses, Choeur)
33. Act 2: "Tout Rend Hommage" (La Deuxième Prêtresse, Prêtresses, Choeur)
34. Act 2: "Vous Voyez Deux Tendres Amants" (Achante, la Grande Prêtresse)
35. Act 2: "Notre Arrêt Va Se Prononcer" (Céphise, Achante)
36. Act 2: "Le Jour Ou Tous Les Cours Rendront Grace a L'amour" (La Grande Pretresse)
37. Act 2: "Le Jour Où Tous Les Cours Rendront Grâce À L'amour" (Céphise, Achante)
38. Act 2: "Non, Il N'est Point de Coeurs Contents" (Choeur)
39. Act 2: "Achante, Quels Accents!" (Céphise, Achante)
40. Act 2: "Amants Qui Vous Fuyez, Cessez de Vous Contraindre" (Céphise)
41. Act 2: "Avant de Se Réunir" (Achante)
42. Act 2: "Pourquoi Fuir Ainsi Les Pas" (Achante, Délie, Céphise)
43. Act 2: "Dois-Je Regretter Un Volage" (Délie)
44. Act 2: "Est-Ce Un Crime Que D'enflammer" (Achante)
45. Act 2: "Laissez-Vous Entraîner" (Achante, Délie, Choeur)
46. Act 2: Musette
47. Act 2: Premier Et Deuxième Menuet I
48. Act 2: "Chassons de Nos Plaisirs Tranquilles" (Une Bergère)
49. Act 2: Première Et Deuxième Gavotte
CD 2
1. Act 2: "Ne Puis-Je Inspirer Que L'effroi ?" (Le Génie, Céphise, Achante)
2. Récit Et Choeur: "Pour Célébrer Ce Jour" (Le Génie, Choeur)
3. Act 2: Entrée Des Chasseurs Et Des Chasseresses
4. Act 2: Premier, Deuxième Et Troisième Rigaudon
5. Act 2: Entracte
6. Act 2: "L'amour Est Heureux Par Lui-Même" (Un Chasseur)
7. Act 2: Premier Et Deuxième Menuet II
8. Act 2: Air Vif
9. Act 2: "Bergères, Dans Le Temple, Emmenez Cette Amante" (Le Génie)
10. Act 2: "Enfin, Mon Cour Est Désarmé!" (Le Génie, Achante, Céphise)
11. Act 2: "Aquilons Volez À Ma Voix!" (Le Génie, Achante, Céphise)
12. Act 2:  Plainte
13. Act 3: "Tremblez, Tremblez Malheureux" (Le Génie, Achante, Céphise, Choeur)
14. Act 3: "Hélas, Hélas! Vous Pouvez M'opprimer" (Le Génie, Achante, Céphise)
15. Act 3: "Soyons Unis Jusqu'au Tombeau" (Céphise, Achante, Le Génie)
16. Act 3: "Haine Implacable, Guide Leurs Pas" (Le Génie, Achante, Choeur)
17. Act 3: Air TRÈS Vif
18. Act 3: "Haine Implacable, Guide Leurs Pas" (Le Génie, Céphise, Achante, Choeur)
19. Act 3: "Zirphile Est Notre Reine" (Choeur)
20. Act 3: "Triomphe! Victoire!" (Zirphile, Céphise, Achante, Choeur)
21. Act 3: "Des Plus Beaux Nouds Que L'amour Ait Formés" (Zirphile, Achante)
22. Act 3: "Triomphe! Victoire!" (Céphise, Zirphile, Achante, Deux Coryphées, Choeur)
23. Act 3: Air Pour Les Génies Et Les Fées
24. Act 3: Air Pour Les Esprits Aériens
25. Act 3: "Où Suis-Je? Et Qu'est-Ce Que Je Vois?" (Zirphile, Choeur)
26. Act 3: "Rassurez-Vous. Le Ciel, Favorable À la Terre" (Zirphile)
27. Act 3: "Grâces Qui Suivez Sa Mère" (Deux Coryphées)
28. Act 3: Musette en Rondeau
29. Act 3: "Résonnez Tendres Musettes" (Une Bergère, Un Berger, Choeur)
30. Act 3: Entrée Pantomime
31. Act 3: "Aigle Naissant, Lève Les Yeux" (Achante)
32. Act 3: Premier Et Deuxième Menuet
33. Act 3: Pantomime
34. Act 3: "À Nos Concerts Que la Terre Réponde" (Céphise, Zirphile, Achante, Deux Coryphées, Choeur)
35. Act 3: "Lance Tes Feux, Naissante Aurore" (Céphise)
36. Act 3: "Vive la Race de Nos Rois" (Choeur)

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