I had the pleasure of hearing high tenor Jean-Pierre Fouchard and the Opera LaFayette perform a recital of Rameau's operatic music during a snowy February afternoon concert at the University of Maryland. I wanted to hear more Rameau opera and found this excellent CD with a program similar to the one I heard live, but for a soprano voice. This CD on Hyperion, "Love Songs from the Operas" features soprano Carolyn Sampson and Jeffry Skidmore conducting the choir and orchestra of Ex Cathedra, an English early music ensemble, similar to the Opera LaFayette of my own home town, that performs in period style on period instruments. The CD is a wonderful way to get to know Rameau.
Jean-Phillipe Rameau (1687 -- 1764) began composing operas at the age of 50. (Together with his near-contemporary, Domenico Scarlatti, Rameau shows there is hope yet for us late-bloomers)
With their emotional passion, harmonic daring, and unmistakable rhythms, Rameau initiated a new age in French opera. A figure of the Enlightenment in music, Rameau went far towards initiating the classical style of Gluck and Mozart. French opera during Rameau's time was largely a mixture of dramatic stage material and musical interludes known as divertissiments. Thus, his musical accomplishment can legitimately be approached by a selection from his various operas, as offered on this CD and in the live performance I mentioned above.
Sampson and Skidmore offer selections from seven Rameau operas, including his first opera Hipolyte et Acis of 1733, and including as well Les Indes galantes, Les Paladin, Plate, Zoroastre, Dardanus, and Pygmalion. Many of the works include collections of musical interludes from the divertissiments, while others are solo selections. There is a great variety of music on the recording, including a surprising amount of comedy material and, in Platee, Rameau's satire of the florid, melismatic style of Italian opera. Much of appeal of Rameau's music results from the interplay between simple melodic lyricism and the variety of his orchestration, particularly for winds. Flute, oboe, bassoon, and percussion are all well in evidence here. I particularly enjoyed some of the slower more serious ariettes, including "Soleil fuis du ces lieux" from Plate and "Regne Amour" from Zoroastre. Several of the selections show the origins of French baroque music in the dance and feature lively orchestral introductions followed by solos. There are two fine examples in the opening divertissiment from Les Indes Gallantes. Strongly structured and rhythmic orchestral interludes are offered in "Tambourin" from Dardanus and in the minuet and rondo from "Les Indes Gallantes." And the choir is featured in selections from Plate. But Ms Sampson's clear, passionate, and idiomatic soprano remains the chief attraction of this CD.
In his study, "French Baroque Music", James Anthony observed (p. 129) that "In terms of musical statement, there is no question but that [Rameau] is the greatest composer of the French eighteenth century; there is also no question that, among all the first line composers of that century of giants, he is the one least appreciated today." For those who lack the good fortune I had in hearing a live recital of Rameau, this CD provides an introduction to the beauty and power of his operatic music.
I am pleased that this CD has already attracted the attention of two excellent and thoughtful reviewers.