Hyperion’s Record of the Month for May is a showcase for Carolyn Sampson, the young soprano who is fast establishing a reputation for performances of dazzling virtuosity and musicality (for Hyperion she appears on several of The King’s Consort’s recordings, including those of music by Monteverdi, Schelle, Vivaldi and Zelenka). This is her first solo recording and more than lives up to expectation. Support is effectively supplied by the choir and orchestra of Ex Cathedra.
The recital presents arias from seven of Rameau’s operas, works which so dominated the stage of the Paris Opéra in the mid-1700s that their productions were officially ‘rationed’ so as not to depress other composers. By turns tender, voluptuous, nostalgic, teasing and even outrageously satirical, these arias provide us with one long moment of ravishing beauty.
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According to one early biographer, Rameau made his operatic debut ‘at an age when the ordinary mortal begins to decay’. This is a slight exaggeration: the composer was, after all, only fifty when his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, was first performed in 1733. Yet the statement draws attention to the curiously lop-sided pattern of Rameau’s creative life. Although his compositional activity extended over some six decades, the vast majority of his compositions—including almost thirty operas—belong to the second half of that period.
Born in Dijon in 1683, Rameau spent most of his early life in the comparative obscurity of the French provinces. He began to acquire more than a merely local reputation when he settled in Paris in 1722, publishing his monumental Traité de l’harmonie that year. This epoch-making treatise revolutionized the way in which musicians understood their art and has remained the basis of much of the teaching of harmony ever since.
Yet this reputation as a learned theorist was something of an albatross when Rameau finally plucked up courage to present his first opera. French audiences were initially disconcerted by the forcefulness and complexity of his music, and by what they saw as its excessively Italianate character. While there were some who soon came to terms with the richly inventive new idiom, for others Rameau became a hate-figure, the butt of satirical engravings and lampoons. A dispute erupted between the ramistes, as his growing band of devotees was known, and the lullistes, supporters of the traditional repertory still dominated by the revered though long-dead Lully. Of the operas represented on this disc, not just Hippolyte but also Les Indes galantes (1735) and Dardanus (1739) were among those under attack in this long-running dispute.
During the mid-1740s, however, Rameau’s colossal stature as an opera composer was more generally acknowledged. After several commissions from Louis XV’s court, among them Platée (1745), he received a royal pension and the title of compositeur du cabinet du roi. By the time Zoroastre appeared in 1749 his works dominated the repertory of the Académie Royale de Musique (the Paris Opéra) to such an extent that one court official forbade the company to stage more than two of them per year ‘for fear of discouraging other composers’.
By the time he died in 1764, Rameau had become the grand old man of French music. His final years were nevertheless bedevilled by controversy. He was embroiled in several pamphlet wars concerning music theory, while during the notorious Querelle des Bouffons (1752–4) this formerly ‘excessively Italianate’ composer found himself under attack by Italophiles as arch-representative (with Lully) of the conservative and, by implication, discredited French style. His penultimate work, Les Paladins (1760), was a flop while his final opera, Les Boréades, was never performed during his lifetime.
Little more than a decade after his death Rameau’s operas rapidly vanished from the Opéra’s repertory. As one of his supporters put it, ‘people had grown tired of worshipping at the same altar’. Today the fickleness of eighteenth-century taste is of no more than historical interest, and we can relish Rameau’s operatic output as the final and most gloriously inventive flourishing of a uniquely French tradition. France long resisted the concept of opera. To the Gallic mind the idea of all-sung drama was faintly ridiculous, and this helps to explain why opera took so long to establish itself there. It also explains the unusually restricted role of the aria in French opera, once Lully finally developed the so-called tragédie en musique in the 1670s. He and his successors never accepted the Italian model in which the drama proceeded as an alternation of recitative and aria. For them the idea of allowing extended lyrical outpourings to interrupt the flow of the drama was unacceptable.
Thus whereas an early-eighteenth-century Italian opera might include anything between twenty-five and thirty-five substantial arias, a French opera of the same period might include only a handful of movements that we would recognize as arias, since the French confined such movements to places where they would not impede the development of the plot. A favourite device in this respect was the soliloquy. While a full-blown aria may have been considered out of place in the course of dramatic dialogue, the same was not so when a character was on stage alone.
But by far the most likely position for the set-piece aria in the Lully–Rameau period was in what were known as divertissements. From the outset French opera observed a convention whereby the action in each act would give way at some point to a divertissement comprising dances, choruses and arias. Given the essentially non-dramatic nature of such divertissements, there could be no objection to purely musical expansions of this sort.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the majority of the items in the present anthology are drawn from divertissements. Most have little if any direct connection with the plot, so there is no need to discuss their placement in the drama in any detail. The overall mood of the divertissement is normally optimistic. But to assume from this that the content of the anthology might lack variety would be to forget Rameau’s astonishing ability to breathe life into existing forms and to portray an impressive range of moods. The arias on display here are by turns tender, voluptuous, nostalgic, teasing and even outrageously satirical. And because the chronological spread of the chosen items covers almost the whole of Rameau’s thirty-year operatic career, they present between them a remarkably wide cross-section of musical styles.
The most highly developed arias in the divertissements were of a type known as ariette. (The French used this diminutive for what, paradoxically, were their longest solo vocal items.) This type had been borrowed from Italy around the start of the eighteenth century, when the models were by composers like Alessandro Scarlatti and Giovanni Bononcini.
The ariette uses the Italian da capo form: an extended first section is followed by a contrasting middle section, after which the first is repeated. Yet the content, in Rameau’s hands, was often unmistakably French, as in the earliest example in this selection—Rossignols amoureux from Hippolyte et Aricie. In the closing moments of the opera, a shepherdess summons the nightingales to pay homage to the presiding goddess, Diana. The vocal line is disarmingly simple, mainly one note per syllable except for brief flourishes on what were termed ‘privileged’ syllables, in this case ‘ra-ma-ges’ (warbling) and ‘rè-gne’ (reign). All the real musical interest comes from the delicate interplay of voice and accompaniment. To suggest the nightingales’ response, a solo violin and two flutes weave a web of miraculously beautiful tracery, while the remaining violins provide support. (The earliest sources of the opera include only one flute here, but the second flute plays such an integral part in the texture that it is hard to imagine it being added later.)
More typical of the ariette as Rameau inherited it is Régnez, Amour from his second opera, Les Indes galantes (1735). The element of vocal display is more prominent: the rapid trills and runs and the long-held notes are all ultimately derived from the transalpine aria di bravura. And the energetic orchestral lines, in which a variety of musical figures are reworked in different contexts, have a clear Italian ancestry.
The sequence from Les Indes galantes includes one real curiosity—Fra le pupille, Rameau’s only setting of an Italian text. It is as if the composer, mindful that most ariettes were mere approximations of their Italian models, wanted to try his hand at the real thing. In doing so, however, he had to abandon his own style, and the aria is not instantly recognizable as his, though the lively gestures and rhythmic diversity generate real excitement. For Cuthbert Girdlestone it was ‘the only page in Rameau where the nose and eyes of Rossini may be seen, so to speak, winking over the wall’.
A decade later, in Platée, Rameau would affectionately ridicule what the French saw as the excesses of Italian music. The opera includes a deliciously comic sequence involving the character of Folly, who arrives with a lyre stolen from Apollo (represented by huge multiple-stopped chords on plucked strings). Her ariette Aux langueurs d’Apollon is a wicked send-up of Italianisms: melismas on inappropriate syllables (‘re-fu-sa a a a a’, ‘tom-beau eau eau eau’, for all the world like the laughing policeman), over-the-top vocal acrobatics and—most memorably—a delicious parody of the virtuoso Italian cadenza. This could almost be an illustration of the Italian singer Tosi’s wry satire on his countrymen’s excesses: ‘on the last Cadence, the Throat is set a going, like a Weather-cock in a Whirlwind, and the Orchestre yawns’.
Another of Rameau’s excursions into the world of comedy, Les Paladins, is represented here by the ariette C’est trop soupirer, where Nérine tries to beguile the cowardly old jailor Orcan with a mock declaration of love. Rameau’s choice of an accompaniment of oboes and bassoons is possibly to characterize Nérine’s insincerity. At all events, he replaces them with strings when her true feelings later emerge in an ‘aside’. This piece shows how, by 1760, the ariette had begun to be used outside the divertissement as part of the main action. The same is true of Clarine’s ariette-like Soleil, fuis de ces lieux! from Platée. The text is only mock-serious (a plea to the Sun, on behalf of the frogs and water-nymphs, not to dry up their swamp), yet the piece is as ravishing an aria as Rameau ever wrote.
If the ariette was the most spectacular solo vocal movement in the divertissements, it was not the only one. In Rameau’s day, librettists were often required to fit words to existing ballet movements. This technique was known as parodie, a term which in this context had no humorous connotations.
At its simplest, the vocal parodie closely followed the pre-existent material, as in the delightfully buoyant Fuyez, vents orageux! and Partez! from Les Indes galantes. In the sequence from Dardanus (1739) the parodie is more subtle. Neither L’Amour, le seul Amour nor Si l’Amour coûte des soupirs is an exact equivalent of the preceding dance, since the singer requires some rhythmic flexibility to do justice to the expressive nature of these texts. The chorus Par tes bienfaits, meanwhile, develops as an independent choral fantasy on the themes of the foregoing Marche.
Although it was normal for the dramatic action to halt during a divertissement, the placing of the celebration could play a valuable role in plot development—as, for example, when the mood was shattered by some unexpected twist of fate. This effect is created at the end of the sequence from Les Indes galantes with the sudden arrival of the tempest (La nuit couvre les cieux!). The manic energy and weird shifting harmonies of this sequence, admirably suited to their purpose, were nevertheless the kind of thing that set some opera-goers’ teeth on edge. ‘I am racked, flayed, dislocated by this devilish sonata of Les Indes galantes’, complained one disgruntled lulliste after the premiere.
Taken from Platée, the final extract on this recording, Je veux finir, is something very special in Rameau’s output. It comes at the climax of Folly’s shenanigans, where she prepares to summon Hymen, god of Marriage, in what she modestly describes as ‘a masterpiece of harmony’. Strumming her ridiculous lyre, she leads her cronies and the chorus into the invocation. Yet for Rameau, for whom harmony had been the core of his lifetime’s achievement as a theorist, this was too serious a matter. Instead of the anticipated comic effect, he lets the ensemble build up into one of his most sublime creations—a moment almost too beautiful to bear.
Graham Sadler © 2004