Rameau, Jean-Philippe


HippolyteJean-Philippe Rameau - Hippolyte et Aricie

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Emmanuelle Haïm, Ivan Alexandre, Sarah Connolly, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Andrea Hill, Jaël Azzaretti, Salomé Haller, Aurélia Legay, Topi Lehtipuu, Stéphane Degout, François Lis, Marc Mauillon, Aimery Lefèvre, Manuel Nuñez Camelino, Nicholas Mulroy, Jérôme Varnier | Palais Garnier, Paris, 9 July 2012

This new production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie comes at an interesting time in the recent revival of French Baroque opera. While William Christie has moved on to investigate further back through the works of Cavalli, Charpentier and Lully, the arrival - or so it seems - of Rameau’s first opera is freshly put into historical context. In some respects this works in its favour, allowing us to better understand the impact and the influence that Rameau would have on the world of French opera, but on the other hand, through Ivan Alexandre’s rather old-fashioned traditional production, the work suffers in comparison to the efforts that Christie and his collaborators have made towards making these works accessible and meaningful to a modern audience.

Mostly however, thanks to the musical direction of Emmanuelle Haïm, Hippolyte et Aricie does indeed show how much more modern a composer Rameau was in relation to his predecessors. The opera, the composer’s first and written late in his career, is perhaps still too mired in the conventions of the French tragédie lyrique, but coming after having published his Treatise on Harmony in 1722 and his New System of Music Theory in 1726 and having established his career as an accomplished composer of music for the harpsichord, technically Rameau’s music is much more advanced, breathing a freshness and sense of modernity into the ensemble arrangements, with the choral sections in particular sparking the work into life. In almost all other aspects however, but mainly in narrative or dramatic terms, Hippolyte et Aricie is a very dry, conventional baroque work that doesn’t hold up quite as well as some of the composer’s other great works, Castor et Pollux, Les Indes Galantes, Les Boreades or Zoroastre.

It might help if you are familiar with the background of the Greek tragedy Phaedra as told by Euripides, Seneca or Racine - certainly most of the audience in Rameau’s time would have been familiar with the mythology - but even then Pellegrin’s libretto puts its own particular spin on the subject, as making Hippolyte and Aricie the focus of the story might suggest. A lot of the reworking was undertaken in order to meet the demands of the lyric stage, and Rameau’s opera complies with all the conventions of the form, from the opening prologue in a pastoral setting where Diana and Cupid issue challenges to settle a dispute over who reigns over the hearts of men, with a love story then at the heart of the work and scenes set for spectacle and variety in storms and journeys to the Underworld, with Gods and mythological figures dropping in at every opportunity to show off the stage machinery.

The production, directed by Ivan Alexandre with set designs by Antoine Fontaine, does its best to replicate a sense of the original spectacle using period-style props, backdrops and stage effects, the Gods descending impressively on clouds, on top of huge deluges of waves and from the mouths of giant mythical sea monsters. It looks terrific, but none of it really does anything for a dramatic style that already feels dated, failing to find a way that makes a modern audience want to care about the figures in this ancient drama that flits from scene to scene without making a great deal of sense. The colour schemes and lighting used don’t help matters, pale green and sepia under subdued lighting make this look dusty, faded and murky.

There are however compensating factors that make this more than worthwhile. First, of course, is Rameau’s music. If it’s not greatly attuned to the emotional undercurrents, it at least has musical variety (enough for ten operas according to Campra) and is full of wonderful harmonies and melodies. In narrative terms it’s a hugely disjointed work, a series of standalone scenes with linking recitative, interrupted even further and with regularity for choruses and ballet sequences at the most inappropriate of times, all to give the original intended audience the variety and contrast they would have expected, but the leaps and lurches at least allow Rameau to vary the rhythm and tempo with that distinct freshness of character. Most impressive are the choruses, which came across quite stunningly as sung by the Choir of the Concert d’Astrée, as well as a trio of voices of the three Fates. Musically, all of this was directed with a great sense of verve and rhythm by Emmanuelle Haïm.

Also very much in favour of the production was the terrific cast assembled here at the Palais Garnier, even if not all of the roles came across equally as well. Topi Lehtipuu and Anne-Catherine Gillet sang the parts of Hippolyte and Aricie well, with beautiful tone, but caught up in the disjointed narrative, their roles never really came to life and they were as dull as the costumes they were dressed in, slipping into the background. They did have a lot of colourful characters and singers to contend with however, such as Sarah Connolly’s dominant Phèdre, Jaël Azzaretti’s sparkling Amour (Cupid) and Stéphane Degout’s brooding Thésée (Theseus).

Castor et PolluxJean-Philippe Rameau - Castor et Pollux

De Nederlandse Opera, 2008 | Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Anna Maria Panzarella, Véronique Gens, Judith van Wanroij, Finnur Bjarnason, Henk Neven, Nicholas Testé | Opus Arte

The production notes in the DVD of Castor et Pollux note that Jean-Philippe Rameau quickly came to be regarded as the successor to Lully after his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, was performed in Paris, and his importance is certainly evident in his third opera Castor et Pollux, (first performed in 1737 but revised in 1754, the latter version used for this recording). The story of love triumphing over death through a trip into Hades to rescue a deceased loved-one is certainly of common mythological origin going back to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which is regarded as the first opera, so it’s no surprise that Handel’s Admeto and Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice and Alceste also come to mind when watching Castor et Pollux, but the similarities and the influence that Rameau would have on his successors is evident just as much in the musical treatment and arrangements.

Rameau’s following of the mythology is relatively straightforward in terms of plotting, the subject efficiently laid out in the opening two acts, but the conflicting sentiments of four different figures, some mortal and others immortal, make the opera rather more complicated, and it’s in the expression of these through the music and the singing that the brilliance of Rameau’s tragédie lyrique is evident. Pollux the immortal son of Jupiter marries Télaïra, but becoming aware that she is in love with his twin moral brother Castor and he is in love with her, he gives up his wife and unites her with Castor, rather than hurt them both and see his brother go off into exile. This would be all noble and fine but for Télaïra’s sister Phébé, who is in love with Castor herself, but doesn’t have her feelings reciprocated. She arranges for Télaïra to be kidnapped by Lincée, but it is Castor who is killed in the battle that ensues. As Phébé has the ability to open up the gates of Hades, Pollux agrees to go look for his brother, knowing that he will have to take his place there so that Castor can live again, the two of them taking their place as immortals as stars in the constellation of Gemini.

Performed here at De Nederlandse Opera with the same production team behind the spectacular Drottningholm version of Rameau’s Zoroastre, stage director Pierre Audi and Christophe Rousset, the musical director of Les Talens Lyriques, create another remarkable spectacle out of all the elements – singing, music, dance, stage, lighting, costumes – that combine to make Rameau’s operas so invigorating. There’s a magnificent sound mix (in LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1) that captures the astounding performance of Les Talens Lyriques, played on period instruments, with clarity and perfect tone, creating a wonderful fullness of sound, particularly when the off-stage chorus is employed (in a manner that brings to mind Mozart’s Requiem particularly during the funeral of Castor). The Baroque and Rameau specialist singers such as Anna Maria Panzarella, Véronique Gens and Nicholas Testé are accompanied also by fine singing from Judith van Wanroij (as Cléone), Henk Neven (as Pollux) and Finnur Bjarnason (as Castor).

The staging and lighting are just as important, making use of an almost bare stage, with minimal backdrops of crossbeams, columns and geometric objects that nonetheless create a perfect impression of mythological antiquity, the costumes, colours and lighting emphasising the passions and emotional language of the characters that is expressed with such drama and depth in the musical arrangements and the singing. Anna Maria Panzarella in particular gives one of her finest Rameau performances here, giving a wonderful rendition of Act 2’s “Tristes apprêts” lament for Castor. The dancing is well employed, not as a divertissement as it is often used in Baroque opera, but to add another level to the unspoken sentiments of the characters and in how they relate to one another. On every level, this is an outstanding production of one of the finest Baroque operas.

It’s released on DVD only by Opus Arte, which is a pity as this would look stunning on High Definition media. It still looks and sounds excellent on the 2-DVD set. Extras consist of a booklet that covers the history of the opera and the production, but there is no synopsis given. The story is covered to some extent on the 16 minute Making of on the disc, through interviews with Pierre Audi, the production team, the cast and the dancers. The rehearsals give some idea of the amount of effort that went into making this an amazing spectacle.

BoreadesJean-Philippe Rameau - Les Boréades

Opéra National de Paris, Palais Garnier, 2003 | Robert Carsen, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, La La La Human Steps, Barbara Bonney, Paul Agnew, Toby Spence, Laurent Naouri, Stéphane Degout, Nicolas Rivenq, Anna-Maria Panzarella, Jaël Azzaretti | Opus Arte

It’s hard to imagine how Rameau’s last opera would have been staged 250 years ago – particularly since, written a year before the composer’s death in 1765, it was abandoned unperformed and has since disappeared into near-obscurity – but Robert Carsen’s typically brilliant direction finds an appropriate perfect balance between simplicity and modernity that allows the music, singing and the dancing to be seen in the best possible light.

The emphasis, as ever with Carsen, is on the lighting and colour to achieve the appropriate mood and atmosphere, but every other element works perfectly alongside it. The costumes are smart and elegant, a classic formal 1940s Dior look, which you might not think of as being the dress of ancient mythology, but the opera itself uses familiar figures and creates its own mythology from them, much like Rameau’s Zoroastre. The sets are minimal, but props, when they are used, are used to impressive effect, the director finding a perfect balance between the colours and the tones of the dress, never letting the stage become cluttered even when it is filled with singers, chorus and dancers.

There’s a sense of harmony in the stage arrangement then that is appropriate for the subject of the opera that is bound up in nature and the seasons. Alphisa, the Queen of the mythical land of Bactria (the same fictional kingdom used in Zoroastre), is bound by law to marry one of the sons of Boreas, the God of the North wind, but she is in love with Abaris, a man of unknown descent. It turns out of course that he is the son of Apollo and one of Boreas’ nymphs, making him of Borean descent and capable of marrying Alphisa, but there is a lot of turmoil and tempestuous exchanges before this little fact is dramatically revealed. That conflict is expressed in the seasons in the most colourfully theatrical manner with an immaculate sense of the musical, dramatic and aesthetic principles of the opera.

It’s a French Baroque opera, of course, so there are also ballet elements, and the intricate modern movements and gestures of the La La La Human Steps fit perfectly into the overall spectacle. And a wonderful spectacle is what it is intended to be. Regardless of the intricacies or the meaninglessness of the plot, with its Masonic overtones and pre-Revolutionary class conflict, Les Boréades is a supreme diversion and an entertainment, combining all the elements that make up Baroque opera and where the noble expressions of love, honour and liberty are restored and win out over the twists of fate and whims of the gods.

We are fortunate to be able to have someone like William Christie to bring this kind of opera back to the stage, who, along with Robert Carsen, has such a deep understanding and love for the Rameau and his works. The performance of Les Arts Florissantes under Christie’s direction is marvellous, attacking the rhythmic dance score with verve, but also with a degree of sensitivity for the sentiments of love expressed in the arias. The same can be said of the terrific cast – particularly in Barbara Bonney’s strong and impressive Queen Alphisa, and Paul Agnew’s gorgeously lyrical high-tenor Abaris (listen out for his heartbreaking aria ‘Je cours fléchir un dieu sévère’ in Act IV) .

Filmed in HD, if only available on Standard Definition DVD, the recording of performance still looks and sounds extremely good, the sound mixes in LPCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 (there is no DTS track here). The opera is spread over two discs but, since the five acts of the opera are played straight through without even any natural breaks between the acts, the split is unfortunate but unavoidable. There is also an hour-long documentary on the opera, which is relatively informative but over-long. A fine package.

IndesJean-Philippe Rameau - Les Indes Galantes

L’Opéra National de Paris, 2004 | Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, Danielle de Niese, João Fernandes, Valérie Gabail, Nicolas Cavallier, Anna Maria Panzarella, Paul Agnew, Nathan Berg, Jaël Azzaretti, François Piolino, Richard Croft, Gaëlle Le Roi, Malin Hartelius, Nicholas Rivenq, Christoph Strehl, Christophe Fel, Patricia Petibon  | Opus Arte

This splendid piece of Baroque musical theatre, one of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s earliest works from 1735, is quite different in form from what you would normally associate with familiar opera tradition. Instead of conforming to a typical classical or mythological storyline of early opera, with long arias and recitative, it operates instead within a structure of four separate but thematically linked “entrées” (with a prologue), colourful little tableaux vivants of love adventures in the exotic foreign lands of the “Amorous Indies” – Turkey, Peru, Persia and America.

The nature of those romantic adventures will certainly be the familiar opera tropes of classical figures and archetypes, with stories of love and forbidden passion enlivened by mistaken identities, cross-dressing and extraordinary coincidences. In addition however to the beautiful arias, duets and choral arrangements, once the little romantic complications are resolved, they are celebrated by grand choral arrangements and joyous ballet sections, all of it imaginatively and simply spectacularly staged like some big colourful cartoon.

The question of fidelity to the period doesn’t really come into it and is much less important than the spirit within which it is enacted. The staging certainly makes use of modern techniques, but is timeless and utterly faithful to the nature and intent of the pieces, which is simply to entertain and take pleasure in the beauty of the music, the singing and the playing of the characters. With William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the helm for this remarkable production at the Paris Opéra in 2004, and an exceptional cast, Les Indes Galantes certainly does that. It’s an absolute marvel, a delightful entertainment on so many levels, inventive and visually dazzling, filled with wonderful rhythmic music that will take your breath away. Really, the rediscovery of this wonderful piece and the efforts put into its revival can’t be praised highly enough.

Released on a 2-DVD set by Opus Arte, the quality of the set is of an extremely high standard. Upscaled to 1080p, it often looks as good as a high-definition presentation – with only the colour saturation being slightly less defined. PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 tracks are strong. A 51 minute documentary on the production with contributions from William Christie is well worth viewing.

ZoroastreJean-Philippe Rameau - Zoroastre

Drottningholm Slottsteater Sweden, 2006 | Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Anders J. Dahlin, Sine Bundgaad, Anna Maria Panzarella | Opus Arte

First performed in 1749, the reason this wonderful piece of French Baroque opera from Jean-Philippe Rameau, court composer to Louis XV and contemporary of Bach, Scarlatti and Handel, stands up so well today is undoubtedly down to the timeless nature of its subject matter. Rather than being based on Greek gods and legends, Zoroastre rather is set in the fictional land of Bactria and its subject, dealing with the timeless struggle between forces of good and evil, a battle between darkness and light on a vast epic scale, could even lend itself to a science-fiction fantasy interpretation.

Here, Abramane takes advantage of the unexpected death of the King of Bactria to attempt to seize power through an alliance with the Princess Érinice, usurping it from the rightful heir, Amélite, and exiling her lover Zoroastre, who has already spurned the attentions of Érinice. Zoroastre however is inducted into a higher state of awareness by a guru, Oromasès, and returns to Bactria to save Amélite. An epic power struggle develops then between the forces of goodness and love on one side and evil and hatred on the other. It’s a familiar struggle, with Masonic references, that just as easily be connected to The Magic Flute (Zoroastre = Sarastro), as it could be a premonition of the French Revolution (or if you fancy a Eurotrash interpretation, even the Batman mythos and Dracula stories fit the model surprisingly closely).

This production however is utterly faithful to its period setting and presented with magnificent attention to the smallest detail. Performed in an 18th century theatre in Drottningholm in Sweden, with its highly effective original pulley-operated stage scenery, the production is beautifully costumed, impressively staged and immaculately lit, filmed exceptionally well, with unusual close-ups and angles that draw you in (although the semi-obscured shaky overhead shot is over-used and really offers nothing).

The same enthusiasm can be shown towards the performance. Although the plot can be a little obscure and there are indeed some long opera seria arias that can occasionally be testing - without the excess of any da capo singing it has to be said - there is nonetheless a surprising amount of engaging dramatic action and interaction that keeps it well-grounded, as well as some unusual dance moves that add well to the emotional expression. The orgy of bloodlust in the Black Mass sequence that takes up the whole of Act 4 is one of the most dramatically staged scenes you’ll see in any production, darker and more menacing than Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell.

Most effective in this respect is Rameau’s music itself, which has pounding baroque rhythms several hundred years before Michael Nyman appropriated them, but is also dynamic and lyrical, innovatively introducing clarinets into the orchestra ensemble. Les Talens Lyriques ensemble’s playing of this revived piece is exemplary, and the singing flawless, although particular mention should be made of Anna Maria Panzarella’s Érinice for her powerful singing, as well as the sheer emotional force contained within it and her intense performance.

On the technical side, the all-region Blu-ray is also pretty much flawless. 16:9 widescreen, the superbly lit production shows tremendous detail in its 1080i encode. My amplifier identified the audio tracks as full bit-rate PCM, in stereo and in 5.1, though it’s listed as Dolby True HD on the case, but uncompressed the surround track in particular gives wonderful tone and body to the period instrumentation, and offers a full dynamic range to the singing. In an hour-long documentary, the production team offer their thoughts on the opera and its staging. A visual synopsis and cast list is also provided, along with a booklet that puts the opera into context. A fascination production of a little-known baroque opera, this is a strong package all-around, one that certainly merits a couple of viewings.