The concept of a collection of French baroque arias used to be completely unheard of. Although different in structure from the Italian type (usually shorter, with no da capos) they are just as charming, but rarely heard. Then in 2002, Virgin Classics released a magnificent recital by Patricia Petibon (simply called "French Baroque Arias") and broke this long silence. Now Hyperion has given us this wonderful gift of a recital, capturing in some seventy minutes' time the best tunes of the master of French baroque opera, Jean-Philippe Rameau.
Admittedly, the collection is somewhat one-side:none of Rameau's dramatic monologues are included; the recital consists mostly of the dance tunes and arriettes that are found in the selected operas' divertissements, and, thusly, not part of the main, dramatic action. But it is in these arias where Rameau shows his true genius for infectious melody, and, collected together, they make for much pleasurable listening.
Most of the first part of the programme is extracted from "Les Indes Galantes", which is a masterpiece of the sub-genre known as "Opera Ballet". The majority of the selections are derived from the divertissement from the first "entree" - "The Benevolant Turk" (an "opera ballet" generally consisted of 3-4 "entrees", each a self-contained one act opera; each "entree" had its own title, characters, and plot, but all the entrees were connected as far as theme). Along with the standard dance-tunes like the buoyant "Partez", are less stereotyped numbers such as the scene in which Emilie first encounters the stranded ship coming to shore (upon which is her long-lost lover), and the odd "air Italianne" - "Fra le Pupille", Rameau's only known Italian setting.
The recital also contains extracts from other famous Rameau operas, such as "Hyppolite et Aricie", "Dardanus" and "Zoroastre", and one startlingly beautiful number from the undervalued "Les Paladins", an opera which deserves to be represented in the catalog (Marc Minkowsky, are you listening?).
Carolyn Sampson is all shimmering delight, especially in the lighter extracts. Her voice is perfectly suited to the repertoire, and while, perhaps, not as idiomatically French as Petibon's, it is a bit more rich and sonorous. However, she does lack Petibon's sense of playfulness with the repertoire: while Folie's arias from "Platee" are beautifully sung, Sampson fails to make anything of the humour found within them, as Petibon clearly does in her recital. But, that said, it is enough that the sound is ravishing.
Jeffrey Skidmore and "Ex Cathedra" back her up well. The trilling of the flutes in Hebe's aria from "Les Indes Galantes" couldn't sound more bird-like!
All-in-all I was enchanted by this collection, and could not recommend it highly enough.