Rameau Turns French Opera Topsy-Turvy

United StatesUnited States Rameau: “Demons and Monsters: The Theatrical Orchestra of Jean-Phillipe Rameau,” Robert Mealy (violin and director), Mary Feminear, Pureum Jo (sopranos), John Brancy (baritone), Davone Tines (Bass-baritone), Juilliard415 (orchestra), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 14.12.2012 (SSM)

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Suite from Castor et Pollux (1737/1754)
Suite from Dardanus (1739/1744)

It’s hard to believe now how radical, dissonant and cacophonous Rameau’s first operas sounded to the Parisian public. When Marc Minkowski’s recording of Rameau’s first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie,came out, a sticker on the cover stated that this opera shocked and outraged its original audience, that is was so revolutionary that it changed the course of music history. Few who hear the opera today, without knowing what came before, will be shocked by the music, but, indeed, it did turn conventional French opera on its head. Here was music whose strange harmonies, unusual instrumentation, long set pieces and provocative prologues made the current French operas, mostly unsuccessful imitations of Lully, just seem plain dull. Even the themes of Rameau’s libretti went far beyond the narrow range of Lully’s subjects. Pollux’s struggle with the fraternal love that prevents him from accepting the love of Télaire and Phébé was a topic never dealt with in French opera before Rameau. Les Indes Galantes is a series of entrees of exotic foreign dignitaries and their fantastic entourages. The much later Platée involves a frog-like being, living in a swamp, who believes that Jupiter will abandon Juno sand marry her.

The two suites of this program are taken from the early tragédies en musique: Castor and Pollux and Dardanus. While revivals of Rameau’s operas had a recent, short-lived period when there was enough funding to support expensively staged productions or recordings for major record labels, we now get concert versions or collections of orchestral suites and arias. We even get from Marc Minkowski, “Une Symphonie Imaginare,” a compilation of “17 of Rameau’s best orchestral moments” as stated in one review.

This performance featured four excellent singers, all well-versed in Baroque style and a nearly-professional Baroque orchestra of students led by the Baroque specialist Robert Mealy. The full color of Rameau’s music was emphasized by the oboists and bassoonists standing up when their contribution was prominent. It was nice to see and hear details too subtle to be picked up on a recording, such as the several notes played on the triangle in the minuets of the first suites. A few liberties were taken in dynamics particularly in the repeats of some of the dance movements. The first set of Gavottes were taken at an unusually slow tempo compared to the more traditional Gavotte tempo in Act 4 of the same suite.

The vocalists were all excellent. Mary Feminear gave a moving reading of “Tristes apprêts,” an aria reminiscent of Handel’s much earlier “Lascia la spina.” Pureum Jo’s voice was unalloyed and supple. She breezed through several arias from Dardanus with ease and aplomb. The pure, rich bass-baritone of Davone Tines was one of the highlights of the evening and John Brancy sang even better than he did in last year’s Rossini one-act operas at Juilliard.

It is a joy to see how the students have grown in confidence and ability and how quickly the Historical Performance department, now in its fourth year, has gained the reputation as one of the finest early music schools in the world.

Stan Metzger