Something Old / Something New

Jean-Philippe Rameau: A New Take on French Opera

Issue 146

If Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764) had not embarked on a new aspect of his musical career in middle age, the world would be deprived of some very fine operas. Already a famous music theorist, he turned his attention to writing operas in his late 40s, eclipsing the glory of national favorite Jean-Baptiste Lully as a craftsman of opera in French.

It wasn’t an easy handoff of power. Lully, from two generations before, was still so revered in Paris that his proponents were known for entering into shouting matches, and occasionally fist fights, to defend him from the pro-Rameau crowd. You can read more about Lully in my recent Copper piece in Issue 148. The only thing that brought the two sides together was the growing prominence of Italian opera, which was threatening to oust French works even from Paris theaters.

Rameau’s sound differs from Lully’s mainly in his use of harmony, both in terms of which chords Rameau chooses, and the way he makes those chords obvious and rhythmically prominent rather than obscuring them in a contrapuntal texture. One mark of a good Rameau performance is the acknowledgment of that essential fact while incorporating musical subtlety and avoiding an overly weighted sound.

The opera Dardanus was first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1738. A new recording of Rameau’s 1744 revision was recently released on the Glossa label with György Vashegyi conducting the Orfeo Orchestra and the Purcell Choir. With a story inspired by Greek mythology, the demi-god Dardanus (Cyrille Dubois) goes to war with King Teucer (Thomas Dolié) but falls in love with his daughter, Iphise (Judith van Wanroij). You’ll be relieved to hear that, despite the opera being categorized as a tragédie lyrique, it has a happy ending.

Van Wanroij, a Dutch soprano, has a powerful voice with layers of depth. Here she sings “Régnez, plaisirs, régnez” from the Act I Prologue. Vashegyi leads the orchestra with fluid grace, so the metrical block chords never overwhelm the forward motion of the phrases.

 

The Hungarian-based Orfeo Orchestra and Purcell Choir are part of the same organization and both under Vashegyi’s direction. As has been true since the invention of opera, the chorus is at least as important as the soloists in telling the opera’s story. The way a composer handles the chorus determines our sympathy toward the main characters. The way a conductor handles the chorus determines our sympathy toward the composer’s work.

Rameau has a staunch advocate in Vashegyi and the Purcell Choir. This excerpt from Act V, Scene 5, “Que vos flambeaux éclairent nos rivages,” shows off the singers’ serene virtuosity as they circumvent melismas worthy of a Handel oratorio.

 

Dardanus also gets some attention on a new recording by the L’Orfeo Barockorchester (not related to the Orfeo Orchestra), on the CPO label. The performance, conducted by the orchestra’s founder, Michi Gaigg, includes excerpts both from Dardanus and the slightly later Pigmalion. Gaigg, who is also a baroque violinist, conducts under the noticeable influence of her late mentor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, pulling a bright, energetic sound from the orchestra.

The singer of the opera excerpts is Swedish tenor Anders J. Dahlin, with a lithe and passionate voice that matches well with Gaigg’s purposefully edgy rhythms. A good example is this aria from Dardanus, “Hatons-nous, courons a la gloire.”

 

On the other hand, both Gaigg and Dahlin can switch into mournful gear when needed. However, while Dahlin’s expressivity is always moving, there are moments when his ornaments seem over-hasty. Here is the aria “Fatal amour” from Pigmalion, a version of the beloved Greek myth about a sculptor who falls for his own artwork. Dahlin has a “mixed voice,” one that can move from a chesty, almost baritone sound to a floating head voice that brings him into countertenor range. It’s ideal for French baroque music.

 

Rameau wrote 15 different versions of his very successful opera Les indes galantes, important in music history as the first time Rameau tried the old Lully style of using a lot of ballet in an opera. It’s more a series of love tales than a single opera, set in exotic locales like Turkey, Peru, Arabia, and (ha!) America. The title refers to “the Indies,” a vague geographical concept of non-European lands.

In a new live recording from the Chateau Versailles label, Valentin Tournet conducts the instruments and voices of La Chapelle Harmonique. Emmanuelle de Negri, who has worked with many top early-music groups like Les Arts Florissants, lends her smooth, focused soprano to several roles. Philippe Talbot, as the male love interest in the tales, is best known for late 19th-century light tenor parts, yet his clear and delicate voice brings out the intricacies of Baroque writing.

Although the performance is available only as a CD and is apparently not streaming anywhere (quite unusual these days), this choral excerpt gives a taste of its intensity. You’ll notice the crashing sounds, made by striking a thin sheet of metal, to represent a stormy sea. The theatricality is immediate and thrilling, helped by Tournet’s tight control that lets just enough wildness emanate from the chorus.

 

Composing an opera is not just about writing great recitatives, arias, and choruses. Rameau was equally skilled at crafting orchestral movements for his theatrical works, and some of those have been collected in a recent recording on Glossa by the Orchestra of the 18th Century. Frans Brüggen leads the ensemble in instrumental suites excerpted from two of Rameau’s operas, Les fêtes d’Hébé and Acante et Céphise, both laden with enough dances to be called ballet-operas.

A surprising takeaway from Brüggen’s relaxed yet royal rhythmic interpretations is how forward-looking these pieces sound if played in this way. While Rameau himself was in effect reaching back to Lully to create these dance-laden operas, he was also a man of his time; the pre-Classical galant style was beginning to blossom in Europe, and even an aging music theorist was not immune to its charms when he put pen to paper.

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