A New Recording of Rameau’s “Les Boréades”

Les Boreades cover

RAMEAU: Les Boréades / Deborah Cachet, sop (Alphise); Caroline Weynants, sop (Sémire); Mathias Vidal, tenor (Abaris); Benedikt Kristjánsson, tenor (Calisis); Benoit Arnould, bar (Adamas); Tomáš Šelc, bass (Borilée); Nicolas Brooymans, bass (Borée); Lukáš Zeman, bar (Apollon); Helena Hozová, sop (L’Amour); Pavla Radostová, alto (Polymnie); Anna Zawisza, sop (1st Nymph); Teresa Maličkayová, mezzo (2nd Nymph); Collegium 1704; Václav Luks, cond / Château de Versailles CV5026 (live: Versailles, January 22 & 25, 2020)

Born two years before J.S. Bach, Jean-Philippe Rameau led a rather different musical life though he did compose a great many pieces for harpsichord. Then, at the age of 50, he wrote the opera Hippolyte et Aricie, which became a hit, and later wrote Les Indes Galantes and Castor et Pollux, which became even bigger hits. This opera, written when he was 80(!), was scheduled to be produced, but was replaced by Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s Ismène et Ismènias.

The problem was that Rameau’s previous opera, the “comédie-ballet” Les Paladins, had been a dismal failure when it premiered three years earlier. My guess is that the theater chose not to take a chance on such a long opera, running two and a half hours and covering five acts, fearing another failure and this time an expensive one. In addition, the sort of complex music that Rameau wrote had lost popularity in favor of the simpler Italian opera style.

At first I thought that this was a world premiere recording, but then I tripped across the cover of a 1990 release of this work, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, on Erato. This was the world premiere recording of this opera. The singers were sopranos Jennifer Smith and Anne-Marie Rodde, tenors Philip Langridge and John Aler, and basses Stephen Varcoe and Gilles Cachemille. The recording garnered five stars from Amazon buyers. Obviously, I’ve not heard it.

The plot is your typical ancient gods mythology stuff with a willful Queen tossed in who chooses to defy them. According to Wikipedia:

Alphise, Queen of Bactria, is in love with Abaris, whose origins are unknown. According to the traditions of her country, Alphise must marry a Boread, one of the descendants of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. Determined to marry Abaris, Alphise abdicates, angering Boreas who storms into the wedding and abducts Alphise to his kingdom. With the help of Apollo and the muse Polyhymnia, Abaris sets off to rescue her. He challenges Boreas and his sons with a magic golden arrow. Apollo descends as a deux ex machina and reveals that Abaris is really his son by a Boread nymph. Therefore, there is no longer any obstacle to Abaris and Alphise’s marriage.

Well, one thing I can say about this performance is that it is very powerfully conducted. Václav Luks, founder and director of the orchestra Collegium 1704, is also a harpsichordist, French horn player and musicologist. I had to wait to hear how he treated the strings because the overture, which is a bit simplistic and not really Rameau at his best, is full of trumpets, horns and drums. When I did hear strings they were of the lower variety, celli and basses, although later on the violins did show up, but they, too, played with so much energy that the matter of straight tone seemed moot.

The opera proper opens with sung recitatives that are surprisingly melodic, accompanied by harpsichord, basso continuo, and, believe it or not, French horns. This is a duet between Alphise and Sémire in which the latter learns the Queen’s dilemma. The two sopranos are not only excellent, but have contrasting timbres which makes it easier to distinguish between them. The second scene is a short orchestrally-accompanied recitative by Borilée, followed in turn by a duo between Calisis (Benedikt Kristjánsson) and Alphisa, followed by an aria for the former. Kristjánsson has a marvelous high, light tenor voice, very French-sounding in style and timbre despite his being from Iceland. And this, in turn, is followed by a short ballet sequence, then by an aria for Sémire which does not range too far upwards but contains plenty of grace notes. Then we resume the ballet. Remember, folks, in France sticking ballets into operas was a convention that lasted 200 years.

The point I am making is that, typical of Rameau, he wrote continuous music that morphed and developed without allowing singers to “stop” their arias and duets and wait for applause, and in fact it is this continuous musical development that makes Les Boréades so fascinating.

But I noticed that, in track 13, Calisis’ short aria was supposed to be followed by a scene in which Sémire sings with the chorus. This was omitted from this recording for reasons that are not explained, but then, lo and behold, this solo with chorus suddenly pops up between the “Rondeau vif” and “Gavotte vive” of the ballet. Yet since there is no description of the edition used or why pieces were moved around a bit, I have no idea why this is. Moreover, Luks seems to be rearranging the opera throughout the performance, so you really can’t go by the track listing to know what is played or sung next. This is the one detriment of this album. Whoever was in charge of naming the individual bands should have actually listened to the recording and listed what was being played or sung at that moment instead of what their score or libretto told them.

Alphise’s heartthrob, Alphise, doesn’t show up until the beginning of Act II. He is sung by Mathias Vidal, whose tenor voice has a bit of a flicker-vibrato but a very even and controlled one, as well as a richer and somewhat more powerful upper range than Kristjánsson. Our Borilée, Tomáš Šelc, has a rich bass voice.

I suppose the main way to approach this opera is not in the sense of sung drama, as was the case of Hippolyte et Aricie, Castor et Pollux or Les Indes Galantes, but as a sort of musical fantasia based on the situations of the plot and the moment-to-moment emotions of the protagonists. In other words, it is a musical “interpretation” of the drama and not always a specific projection of the emotions of the principals; and yet, in a piece like Alphise’s aria “Un horizon serein,” Rameau seems to be suddenly dipping into operatic convention. And always, always, his orchestra remains powerful and expressive, foreshadowing Gluck and, in turn, Méhul, Spontini and Berlioz.

But then again, let’s be honest: this plot is dragged out to epic proportions without being rich enough to bear the length. Of course, Rameau had the option of simply omitting much of the text and writing a shorter opera, but I think he saw it as a challenge to his powers of invention to “push the envelope,” to use a modern term. He obviously felt inspired to write all of this music and to make it as inventive and colorful as he could. Considering where music was at in 1763, he did an excellent job. Rameau at age 80 couldn’t be expected to write the sort of exciting, dissonant music that opens Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, for instance, but what he accomplished within a strictly tonal framework is excellent. He does use “leaning” notes that tend outside of the basic tonality here and there, and honestly, that was about as much as you could expect of the old man. It may be much ado about nothing, but at least he had fun and used his imagination to fill out that nothing.

For a live performance, this recording is exceptionally well balanced and recorded, with the voices always forward and close to the microphones while the orchestra (probably miked separately) also clear and crisp (and the chorus, when it is heard, likewise). If anything, this recording has an almost 3D sound about it; I can imagine that it would sound terrific for those of you who own surround-sound systems. And I’m happy to report that each and every singer has a very good voice, an interesting voice, that most of them at least try to interpret the silly lyrics dramatically. They also have crystal-clear diction and do not wobble; and, thank God, there are NO COUNTERTENORS!!!!!!!!!! (Historical footnote: the French never cared for the castrati; that was an Italian-British thing to them; and therefore, their composers did not write roles for castrati, thus French opera of the period has no place for countertenors. Can I hear an “Amen”?!?)

In addition to constantly shifting the tempi and occasionally the harmony and meter, Rameau wrote here an exceptionally colorful score. Indeed, the orchestral sound here is just as fresh and interesting as it was in Les Indes Galantes, which is saying quite a bit. Nonetheless, Les Boréades is a bit of an acquired taste. If you like Rameau you’ll respond positively to it; if you’re used to the good ol’ aria-duet-ensemble form of 19th century opera, you probably won’t. As for me, I loved it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “A New Recording of Rameau’s “Les Boréades”

  1. John Mannos says:

    I was shook by Alphise’s aria in the first Act (Horizon Serein), and the following contredanse just bursts with epic vigor as if to place a firm exclamation point on Alphise’s sentiment. The drama from the strings and the rhythmic intricacy of Alphise’s slow triplet figures provide a haunting and persistently troublesome emotion. My first introduction to Rameau was his keyboard works. I decided only recently to have a listen at his orchestral and vocal music because I am a ballet pianist and I wanted to get to the real roots of ballet and dance. I was thrilled to discover the rustic flair and polish of Rameau’s ballet-opéras. Pygmalion is my absolute favorite and the NEW Talens-Lyrique recording with Cristopher Rousset conducting is an absolute must-listen, if only for the exquisite tenor. Also, his “actes de ballet” are much shorter, rarely longer than two acts, and have mostly through composed arioso style melodies and récits that alternate with the ballet sequences, but on a much smaller and more accessible scale for the first time or novice listener.


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