McGegan Resuscitates a Forgotten Rameau Opera

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RAMEAU: Le Temple de la Gloire / Marc Labonnette, bar (L’Envie/A Shepherd/High Priest of the Gloire);  Philippe-Nicolas Martin, bar (Bélus/A Warrior); Camille Ortiz, sop (Shepherd/Érigone/Juno/A Roman Dame); Gabrielle Philiponet, sop (Arsine/A Priestess/Plautine); Chantal Santon-Jeffery, sop (Lydie/A Bacchante/La Gloire); Tonia d’Amilio sop (Fannie); Artavazd Sargsyan, haute-contre (Bacchus); Aaron Sheehan, haute-contre (Apollon/Trajan); Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale; Nicholas McGegan, cond / Philharmonia Baroque PBP-10 (live: Berkeley, April 28-30, 2017)

We have gone, in a little over one century, from a time when mostly contemporary operas were performed, and even such now-established “classics” as Il Trovatore and Aïda were considered old-farty music and the bel canto folderol of Donizetti and Rossini utter trash, to an era where this is the core repertoire, and ofttimes much greater attention is paid to the resuscitation of even older and more forgotten works such as this one. This is not a condemnation of either Jean-Philippe Rameau, surely one of the great musical geniuses of his time, or of Nicholas McGegan, one of the very few conductors of early music who truly understand REAL historical style, but rather puts a glaring light on the ephemeral trash that is mostly being written today as new operas that even a Rameau work of secondary importance can stir the sensitive musical mind far better.

When I say that McGegan understands true historical style I of course must accept the fact that his orchestra, the Philharmonia Baroque, buys into the ahistorical concept of constant straight tone in the strings. They almost all do, nowadays. Where McGegan scores over his fellows is in his deep understanding of musical style. He realizes that this music must flow naturally, not proceed stiffly; that his orchestra must sound colorful, that his chorus must sound like human beings singing and not like a MIDI; and, wonder of wonders, that there was a considerable difference between the French haute-contre, a very high tenor (of the type that we often call “tenorinos” today), and the white, hooty sound of countertenors, which were NEVER, EVER used in opera productions of the 18th century. When castrati were not available for the roles written for them, the music was sung—at the composers’ insistence—by female mezzos and contraltos. In all of these respects, McGegan follows in the footsteps of such genuine pioneers of correct early style as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Alan Curtis, and does not march to the beat of those who drain all emotion and humanity from early music.

This recording, then, will be a welcome surprise to those who think they know HIP performance practice and a boon to fans of Rameau. Even his sopranos have vibrato in their voices: not the overripe vibratos of many Slavic singers who clutter the opera field nowadays, but attractive, even flicker-vibratos of the French school. This, too, is appropriate, and these singers do not lack the correct Baroque style, the varied use of trills (approached from both above and below the note, as well as the “Baroque trill” or quasi-trill which was referred to as “spotted flute” technique) and other ornaments. One will also note that his sopranos do drain their voices of vibrato for effect on certain held notes; this, too, was correct Baroque practice. In every respect, then, this performance is an object-lesson to other conductors of early opera…even to the great Marc Minkowski, who often uses countertenors when he shouldn’t (though he, too, otherwise understands true musical style). McGegan even gets his chorus sopranos, at one point, to trill in unison.

In light of all this, plus a libretto by none other than Voltaire, it would be nice if I could say that Le Temple de la Gloire was one of Rameau’s great works. Sadly, it is not. Yes, the music is lively, and there are moments, as in all Rameau operas, where he startles the ear with audacious rhythms and harmonic changes, but for the most part this is a “pageant” opera written for and attended by King Louis XV, nothing more or less. Indeed, some sections of the music, such as the brief ballet in Act I, are so banal as to beggar belief that Rameau actually wrote them. One must sometimes admit that operas written for a pageantry occasion, like certain instrumental works, miss the mark despite the tremendous craft put into them. McGegan’s performance is truly inspired, but the score only shows flashes of Rameau’s brilliance. Overall, it is not on the same level with Castor et Pollux, Les Indes Galantes or his late masterpiece, Hippolyte et Aricie.

Much of this is due to the surprising banality of Voltaire’s libretto, also written on commission and far from his best work. The plot, such as it is, considers the qualifications for entry into the mythical Temple of Glory, to which Louis XV—being, of course, anointed by God as the French believed all their kings to be—would have liked to enter himself. As it is put in the booklet, “Apollo and other representatives of peace, happiness, and virtue spurn a succession of applicants from classical antiquity who represent envy, tyranny, militancy, and debauchery. The contrast of these vices with their corresponding virtues invites a panoply of musical styles and characterizations: demons and Muses, shepherds and warriors, priestesses and satyrs. In the end, only the Roman Emperor Trajan is admitted by the goddess Glory to her temple, after he shows magnanimity in freeing his conquered captives.” So Voltaire was trying to warn old King Louie to mind his Ps and Qs and be a benevolent ruler. That’s nice. Stretched over two and a half hours, it’s a bit of overkill.

One of the real highlights is the shepherdess’ Act I aria, “Vole, vole, charmant Amour,” sung with astonishing control and superb musical and vocal style by soprano Camille Ortiz. The following instrumental music here is a bit better than the previous ballet, but not much; yet the ensuing ensemble scene, “Arrète, respecte les Dieux” is another brilliant scene, astonishingly creative. McGegan makes the most of this curious hodgepodge, enlivening every note and phrase and keeping the listener’s interest up. The singers, too, give their all dramatically, trying to make filet mignon of this decorative, energetic but oftimes hollow strip steak. The performance is so good, in fact, that it transcends the banal sections of the opera while making the great passages stand out. This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but if you listen to the whole recording, I think you will understand what I mean. In most cases, Rameau transcends the banality of the plot—stretched out, be it noted, over two hours and 26 minutes—by means of his lively rhythms, but even such a genius sometimes had trouble filling time with so threadbare a plot. Pageantry is pageantry, and much of the opera sounds like a succession of rousing “whoopee-hey-hey” moments, some good, some mediocre, and a few really brilliant.

Still, since this is the first recording of the original edition, this recording will undoubtedly appeal to Rameau scholars and fans of the composer who must have everything he wrote. Were the music more connected stylistically and more consistent in quality, I would have no hesitation in giving this a six-fish rating because McGegan’s grasp of Baroque style is so complete and so extraordinary.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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