Friday, January 6, 2023

Rameau and Gluck

Jean-Philippe Rameau is now considered one of the greatest opera composers in history. That was not always the case. In the early stages of his career, his stage works were not always well received. His style was considered too complicated. He was ahead of his time and only later did he gain recognition. But even at that time the libretti were critically received. On the other hand, everyone agreed that he was a brilliant orchestrator. This is demonstrated in the 'Nouvelle Symphonie' recorded by Marc Minkowski with his orchestra Les Musiciens du Louvre [1]. The title links this disc to the 'Symphonie imaginaire' that he recorded in 2002. That was on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his orchestra. Incidentally, the word 'symphony' has nothing to do with the symphony as it arose around the middle of the 18th century and led to the great works of the late 18th and 19th centuries. In Baroque France it was used for an instrumental ensemble in general. One finds it, for example, in the chamber cantatas, in which the voice is accompanied by a 'symphony'. The program begins and ends with excerpts from Castor et Pollux. However, it begins with the overture of the first version (1737) and ends with three instrumental movements from the 1754 version (with an aria from the first). As the program progresses, one hears how the orchestra has changed in Rameau's works. In Rameau's oeuvre, the clarinet finds its way into the French opera orchestra. In his oeuvre the orchestra also plays a dramatic role. In this recording, the overture to Acanthe et Céphise (1751) may serve as a model for Rameau's new treatment of the orchestra. Minkowski has provided a compelling and fascinating musical portrait of the composer here, making it clear that Rameau is rightly regarded as a key figure in the development of orchestration. No wonder someone like Claude Debussy was deeply impressed by Rameau's music. Florian Sempey sings some arias from Les Paladins, Les Indes Galantes, Dardanus and - as I already mentioned - Castor et Pollux. The drama comes through very well, but stylistically I'm less impressed with his performances. In addition, when he sings loudly, his voice has an unpleasant sharpness. The booklet includes the lyrics, with translations in English and German, but unfortunately one is left in the dark about the dramatic context. That is a problem for those who don't know Rameau's operas. But the most important thing are the instrumental movements, and that part of this recording leaves nothing to be desired.

Since the rediscovery of baroque opera, several recordings have been made that are dedicated to a singer who performed in the operas of the time. Among them are mainly sopranos and castrati. Almost without exception, the operas are Italian. In comparison, the singers who performed in French operas are much less well known. Dedicating a recording with arias to them is not that easy, because in French operas the solos are much more embedded in the whole than in Italian operas, and the text also relates much more to the dramatic development of the work. And so it is not surprising that the CD 'Rameau triomphant' [2] mainly contains scenes instead of isolated arias. They are often closely linked to the dances that are so typical of French opera. Another feature is that a singer and the chorus often appear together, whereas most Italian operas include only a few choruses, mostly just one at the close, to be sung by the soloists in ensemble. And then there is the typical French voice type of haute-contre. Mathias Vidal sings solos from ten different operas and the acte de ballet Pygmalion, in which the haute-contre takes on a role. In an interview in the libretto, he explains that Rameau uses this type of voice in different ways, and that the different tessitura of the roles correspond to their weight. Unfortunately, this weight is not mentioned for the individual roles. Almost in passing, it is noted that several roles were played by the haute-contre Pierre de Jélyotte, famous in Rameau's time, but which roles he sang is not mentioned either. The fact that scenes have been taken out of their dramatic context is not unproblematic. Some dance interludes are played relatively slowly. That may make sense in a dramatic context, but when they are isolated from their context the tempos seem rather unnatural. Mathias Vidal is an experienced singer who has often sung important roles in French operas and here - despite the limitations of the concept - he knows how to convince and to show to what extent the singers contributed to the success of an opera. His tessitura and the way he deals with the top notes is impressive. In doing so, he avoids the shouting that other singers think they need to emphasize the dramatic character of an aria. There is a little too much vibrato here and there, but overall it doesn't detract from the persuasiveness of this production. Vidal receives fine support from the ensemble Marguerite Louise under the direction of Gaétan Jarry. It's just a pity that the booklet is a bit sloppy, at least as far as the English translation is concerned. The dances are also mentioned in the libretto and these are also translated. There is no need to translate 'gavotte vive' as 'lively gavotte' or 'Calme des sense (Air tendre)' as 'Calm of the senses (tender air). More serious is that in some cases 'air' is translated as 'aria', which is simply wrong, as this suggests a vocal piece. In French operas this refers to an air de mouvement or air à jouer. It is basically impossible to translate, as there are no equivalents in other music. (By the way, the German translation is even worse. Fortunately, the music and interpretation are much better.

The last disc to be reviewed here was inspired by another singer of the 18th century: Henri Larrivée, a baritone who was initially a singer in the choir of the Opéra and then sang as a soloist in Rameau's Castor et Pollux in 1755. He later took on roles in Hippolyte et Aricie, Dardanus and Zoroastre. But he also sang in operas by other composers, including Gluck, whom he greatly admired. Hence these two composers come together on a CD entitled 'Enfers' [3] - the French word 'enfer' means 'hell'. According to my dictionary it has no plural, and the fact that it is used here in the plural is probably due to the fact that we are hearing excerpts from various operas in which hell or the underworld plays a role. The programme is designed in an unusual way: as a kind of mass, with spiritual and secular elements. Raphaël Pichon was inspired to do this by an anonymously transmitted Requiem Mass based on material from Rameau's opera Castor et Pollux. The pieces are arranged according to the parts of the Requiem Mass. The sequence (Dies irae) opens with an 'sinfonie infernale' from Gluck's Orphée et Euridice (the French version of Orfeo ed Euridice), followed by excerpts from Zoroastre. Of course, the Dance of the Furies is also included in this section. The conclusion is an aria by Pluto and an ensemble of the Fates from Hippolyte et Aricie. This way of working out the concept did not particularly convince me. I find the mixture of spiritual and secular elements somewhat unfortunate. I am more positive about the interpretations by Stéphane Degout and choir and orchestra of Pygmalion. Degout has projected himself into the various roles very well and depicts them as well as is possible in excerpts. There are also short solos by some colleagues; among them, Emmanuelle de Negri and Reinoud Van Mechelen in particular stand out. The musical qualities of the operas by Rameau and Gluck are convincingly demonstrated in this production.

Rameau: "Nouvelle Symphonie"
Florian Sempey, baritone; Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS062 (© 2022) details

"Rameau triomphant"
Mathias Vidal, haute-contre; Marguerite Louise/Gaétan Jarry
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS039 (©2021) details

"Enfers - Famous opera scenes by Rameau and Gluck"
Stéphane Degout, baritone; Pygmalion/Raphaël Pichon
Harmonia mundi HMM 902288 (2016; 79') details

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