Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)
Zoroastre, tragédie lyrique (in five acts; the original 1749 version)
Libretto by Louis de Cahusac
Jodie Devos – Amélite
Véronique Gens – Erinice
Reinoud Van Mechelen – Zoroastre
Tassis Christoyannis – Abramane
Mathias Vidal – Albénis, Orosmade, Une furie
David Witczak – Zopire, Ahriman, Un génie, La vengeance
Gwendoline Blondeel – Céphie, Cénide
Marine Lafdal-Franc – Zélise, Une fée, Une furie
Thibaut Lenaerts – Une furie
Chœur de Chambre de Namur
Les Ambassadeurs ~ La Grande Écurie/Alexis Kossenko
rec. 2022, Namur Concert Hall, Grande Manège, Namur, Belgium
Booklet with notes and libretto in French and English
ALPHA 891 [3 CDs: 166]
This is one of those issues where I must start with what I have learned from a highly informative booklet note by Benoît Dratwicki of the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles:
“If Rameau’s Zoroastre is ever performed today, it is invariably in its second version of 1756. The original of 1749 had been so mauled by the critics that Rameau and Cahusac were persuaded to subject the work to a thoroughgoing revision. Three acts out of the five are completely different, so that the two versions can almost be regarded as two separate operas.”
The 1749 original played for 25 sold-out performances, a very decent run at the time, but to a reception we would nowadays call mixed. It has some innovations, including one at the outset: it dispenses with the traditional allegorical Prologue (developed by Lully to praise Louis XIV) and launches straight into the impressive overture. This serious opera of ideas, with a Masonic message akin to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, deploys an opposition of light and dark and good and evil. Zoroastre (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, or Mozart’s Sarastro) is the Persian philosopher, founder of Zoroastrianism. His opponent is Abramane, a sorcerer of dark magic, who has exiled Zoroastre, returned to the old cults and plunged the people into darkness. After much contention through the middle acts, Act Five sees Zoroastre restore the rule of light and wisdom. There is some love interest, but it is less prominent than in the revision which makes more of the female roles of Amélite and Erinice.
The performance here employs the instrumental forces known to be used in the mid-18th-century Paris: four each of flutes, oboes and bassoons, and even two clarinets (a first in French opera). Clarinets are mentioned in no musical source, only in the payroll for those 25 performances. So here they are allocated to some of the numbers instead of the oboes. The orchestral layout also returns to the practice of the day.
Instrumental music – and the numerous choruses – give much of the musical pleasure, as is usual in the later Rameau. If you know no French Baroque opera but are curious enough to have read this far: it is quite unlike Italian opera of the day with its strong alternation between secco (dry) recitative and spacious arias. In France, a very different balance and style prevail, and that can disappoint some who know only Handel’s operas. Let me quote Cuthbert Girdlestone on Zoroastre (his Jean-Philippe Rameau: His Life and Work of 1957 remains the best authority in English):
“The contrast between recitative and set pieces, never very marked in French opera, is less pronounced than ever: recitative shades ever and again into a few bars slightly more melodic; airs and even duets break off into recitative. The chorus intervenes more often and more intimately; its usual appearance is in short outbursts which do not form independent ensembles, detachable from their background […] the music never arrests the action and the dialogue is more natural and realistic […] drama’s gain is music’s loss.”
If that makes the work sound pallid, then the stormy Act Four (left relatively unchanged in 1756) will be the best examples of the instrumental and vocal effectiveness this style can achieve.
So the success of a performance of this and similar French Baroque operas depends much upon its integration of all the elements, which is far from the the Italian model’s pre-eminence of vocal display. In this regard this release seems to me to be a complete success in the stylistic terms of the day, a tribute above all to the research, preparation and direction of Alexis Kossenko, a specialist in this repertoire. The now combined band with a combined title Les Ambassadeurs ~ La Grande Écurie play very well, with some athletic string playing and that attractive tang in the tone of the Baroque-style wind instruments.
The soloists are a very strong team. The plot is carried along mostly in recitative, but the nuanced segue from recitative flowering into arioso and back again has its challenges – and here they are persuasively met. Reinoud Van Mechelen’s title role is well taken, often with heady tone in the upper range. Tassis Christoyannis’s Abramane, commanding in his vengefulness, is matched by Véronique Gens’s Érinice, whose unfailing eloquence acquires here a hint of menace when needed. Both are heard at their best in the passage, more duologue than duet, opening Act Four (CD 2, tracks 30-33). Jodie Devos has a voice of wide range, both sweet and substantial, and her Amélite is especially touching in the soliloquy that opens Act Five (CD 3, track 1). The smaller parts are all well sung. What a group of younger and established vocalists France has in Baroque repertoire!
The booklet tells us something about what was required to bring the score to such a convincingly authentic-sounding performance, but chief among them is the assembly of a talent pool of singers and instrumentalists, expert in this style. This is a valuable piece of musical reconstruction. Though the 1756 score might stay pre-eminent, the restoration of much discarded music from 1749 makes this new issue one of more than specialist interest. For Rameau enthusiasts, this well-recorded release will be self-recommending. Alpha make no world premiere claim, but I know of no earlier recording on CD.
For those curious about exactly how the original differs from the revision, there is, apart from Girdlestone’s chapter, the excellent CD set of the 1756 score, performed by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants (see a review of the original issue and a review of a reissue). But this type of opera, with its focus on stage spectacle, ideally needs to be seen. Fortunately director Pierre Audi and Christophe Rousset with Les Talens Lyriques filmed their traditional production of the 1756 version in 18th century costume at the equally authentic Drottningholm Palace Theatre, using its original theatre machinery. That was issued in 2006 on an Opus Arte DVD, along with a substantial documentary in which we learn much about the work and its background.
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