Celebrating the work of a singer described by Voltaire as an ‘adorable nightingale’ is a terrific idea for a recording, especially when it has been prepared with such care and performed so stylishly. Marie Fel was one of Rameau’s favourite singers and this disc explores her repertoire at the Académie Royal (the Paris Opéra) and the Concert Spirituel from 1734 to 1769.
The first track is from the work in which she made her operatic debut: Louis Lacoste’s Philomèle. From the start, it’s clear that Carolyn Sampson is an ideal exponent, stylishly supported by Ex Cathedra and its period-instrument orchestra. The Sinfonia from Delalande's Te Deum laudamus with its stirring trumpets and drums is followed by Sampson singing the ‘Tu rex gloriae’: her way with French decoration and ornaments sounds very natural—not at all contrived—and her bright, clean tone and expressive delivery certainly suggests the kind of sound that Fel was reported to have had (‘pure, charming, silvery’, according to La Borde, a pupil of Rameau).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s activities as a composer are usually remembered through his operas, particularly Le devin du village, in which Fel took a starring role. He is represented here by a Salve regina, composed in 1752, the same year as Le devin du village as a token of Rousseau’s admiration for her singing in his opera. Fel was particularly noted for her performances in the operas by Jean-Philippe Rameau, the greatest French composer of the age. Her appearance in Platée (1745) was an important step in her career and Sampson sings an ariette from it on this disc (‘Amour, lance tes traits’) that is wholly delightful. Later, Fel appeared in a revival of Castor et Pollux and ‘Un tendre intérêt vous appelle’ is most affectingly sung (supported by a very stylish harpsichord continuo and the excellent orchestra, none of whose players seems to be named in the booklet, which is a shame). When Rameau revived Les surprises de l’amour in 1757, he wrote a new part for Fel, and the scene with the enchanted lyre included on this disc is notable not only for Sampson’s wonderfully poised singing but also for Rameau’s astonishing orchestration. The remaining works on this disc reflect Fel’s singing in sacred repertoire, including music by Fiocco and Mondonville, which left me wanting to hear more—always a good feeling.
This is a lovely disc, a most attractive programme supported by Graham Sadler’s illuminating and extremely interesting note (in a booklet that also includes complete texts and translations). The sound is up to Hyperion’s usual standard, capturing Sampson’s voice extremely well, in a natural balance. The whole production has provided me with hours of pleasure.