... and before the 'magic flute' there was the 'magic book' that the beneficent magus Oromases presents to the hero Zoroastre in Jean-Philippe Rameau's boldly "Masonic" opera of 1749, composed decades before Mozart's Zauberflute. There's no clear evidence whether Rameau himself was a Freemason or not, but his librettist Louis de Cahusac unquestionably was, and a highly placed one. His libretto for this innovative 'tragedie lyrique' is an eloquent declaration of Enlightenment/Masonic humanism -- anti-clerical, optimistic about the potentials of humanity and society, a paean to Universal Harmony and the triumph of Light/Wisdom over Darkness/Superstition. There's not a speck of Christianity in the libretto, a fact that must have outraged more than a few people in the ancien regime. The humanistic philosophy expounded in Rameau's opera is far more explicit and radical than that of Mozart's glorious goofiness.
But the comparison extends beyond literary themes. It's a matter of musical genius, also. Let me place my cards on the table: this is a great opera, one of the greatest of the 18th C, and of course the 18th C was the greatest century of musical history. (Go ahead, call my bluff if you dare!) If you're distracted for the briefest moment while watching/hearing this performance, it can only be because you fail to`grok' the music fully ...
... but I'm realistic enough to know that French baroque is a cultivated taste, just as much as an appreciation of ripe cheeses or goose-liver patés. France took its own route through the baroque. French opera is ineluctably different from the conventions of Italian opera that prevailed eveywhere else, from Monteverdi to Mozart. Rameau (1683-1764) was an exact contemporary of Handel (1685-1759), the greatest of Italian opera composers, by the way. Whereas Italian opera was constructed as a series of recitations -- narratives that advanced the dramamtic (in)action -- alternating with da capo arias expressing vague universal themes, French opera was far closer to through-composed `verismo'. The distinction between recitativo and aria is minimal. French opera always included extended instrumental ballet passages, rare in Italian. Whereas the thrills of Italian opera are to be heard in the pyrotechnic displays of arpeggiated fast notes, in French opera the pleasures are in the `graces' and embellishments, in the sensuous affect with which the words are expressed. A manuscript of French baroque (not a modern edited score!) shows a myriad of squiggles over nearly every note. Italian composers wrote about the "hurla francese", the howls and shouts favored by French singers, and you will hear a lot of such impetuous vocalizing in thsi performance. Singing French baroque opera is a different art from singing Mozart or Rossini, let alone Verdi or Puccini. It requires very specific historically-informed training and complete dedication to the French manner. Even the finest romantic opera singers are not equipped physically to sing Rameau or Lully. Placido Domingo, for instance, could no sooner sing the role of Zoroastre artfully, or the superb Wagnerian Waltraud Meier sing the role of Amelite in this opera, than Sarah Palin could conduct American foreign policy without debacle. Likewise, modern orchestral instruments have no business attempting French baroque, and fortunately by and large they don't. The orchestra on this DVD combines the strings of Les Talens Lyriques with some of the winds of the Drottningholm Theater Orchestra, all `original' instruments at authentic baroque pitch. The timbres they produce are magnificent.
It's the singers, however, that matter most. All eight principals in this performance are superbly trained HIP specialists, and all meet the demands of their roles. The most luscious plum of a role goes to the anti-heroine Erinice, the wicked sister who is in love with Zoroastre but who conspires with his evil rival for the throne, Abramane. Erinice has the wildest shifts of affect to express from rage to adoration, despair to pride; Anna Maria Panzarella covers the whole spectrum. Amelite, sung by Sine Bundgaard, is a simpler figure; her task is to be lovely and pure, a vocal embodiment of the Light to dawn when Zoroastre rules. Zoroastre, sung handsomely by the handsome Andres Dahlin, is likewise more an icon of Virtue than a decisive hero; his eventual victory depends more on his spiritual backer, Oromases, sung by Gerard Theruel, than on his own prowess. His opposite, the demonic and demented personification of Darkness Abramane, is sung vigorously by Evgueniy Alexiev; just as in Milton's "Paradise Lost", the villian in Rameau's opera is far more vivid than the hero. Basso Lars Arvidson, comes close to stealing the show in the two roles of Zopire and Vengeance, the arch-diabolical cohorts of Abramane. Perhaps the best-known singer in the cast is soprano Ditte Andersen, in the secondary role of Amelite's maid Cephie. Andersen is such a superb singer that she also comes close to upstaging her mistress.
You'll notice from their names that this is an international cast. One previous reviewer, who didn't like the production as much as I do, complained about the singers' mispronunciation of the French text. He charged the male singers with being worse than the females. Frankly, I find his comments specious. The most `charmingly' Scandinavian vowels are those of Ditte Andersen, while Anna Maria Panzarella gives us Italian consonants throughout. My own French isn't perfect, but honestly I could understand the libretto most of the time without subtitles, particulary when sung by the two male principals. In any case, Louis de Cahusac didn't speak modern academy French! His libretto was written before the "great vowel shift" that followed the French Revolution. The language spoken in aristocratic circles of the ancien regime sounded as little like modern Parisian as a South Carolina drawl sounds like Australian.
The singers do NOT attempt an authentic 18th C pronunciation -- thank goodness -- but in every other way this performance is painstakingly HIP to the ears, original instruments matched with authentic vocal technique. What is presented to the eyes is the diametrical opposite, a relentlessly "modern" staging in terms of dramaturgy, cinematography, and choreography. And it's Modern despite being produced on the only unmodified late 18th C stage in the world, that of the Queen's Palace outside Stockholm. Even the stage machinery there is still authentic, the painted wings and clouds are still moved by windlasses turned by human arms.
I can't promise that everyone will be satisfied by the visuals. I can imagine that some aficcionados of baroque opera would prefer a `recreation' of a performance in the costumes and with the gestures of 1749. There's a lot of writhing and grimacing in the dramaturgy, as well as some extraneous jerrywork with the camera. I was least persuaded by the choreography, which I found visually short of the sensual grace that a baroque audience would have demanded. Nevertheless, the staging has the significant virtue of being consistent with the music and the text. There's nothing incongruous, distracting, or contrary about it, and that amounts to high praise in the current world of opera productions.
Purely in terms of compositional brilliance, Zoroastre is the most impressive of the several Rameau operas available on DVD -- Les Boreades, Les Indes Galantes, Les Paladins, Platee, Castor et Pollux -- and for that reason it would be the first I'd recommend as an introduction to the genre. The others are all extraordinary, too, with gorgeous singing and imaginative staging, but Zoroastre approaches closest to the foundational ideal of Opera as a synthesis of music, language, and thought.
The DVD includes an hour-long documentary, on the second disk, titled "Discovering an Opera". It's well worth watching, even for experienced lovers of French baroque. For neophytes, I might even recommend watching it first. Musical director/conductor Christophe Rousset deserves a very large share of the credit for the quality of this performance, and it's exciting to hear his thoughts about the French style while watching him rehearse some of the singers in details thereof. Stage director Pierre Audi also makes a good case for his modernistic dramaturgy.