Jean Phillipe-Rameau (1683 -- 1764) turned to the composition of opera at the age of 50. For the remaining 30 years of his long life, he produced a succession of masterworks. The conventions of French opera have, until recently, discouraged the full staging of his works; but, fortunately his music can be explored through an increasing number of recordings.
Selections from Rameau's operas tend to focus on either the arias or on the instrumental interludes. An example of the former is the recent release (2007) on Naxos of the haute contre tenor Jean Fouchecourt performing a wide selection of works accompanied by the Opera Lafeyette, a period instrument ensemble from Washington D.C. conducted by Ryan Brown. This slightly earlier CD on Naxos (2005) which features Roy Goodman conducting the European Union Baroque Orchestra in a program of Rameau Orchestral Suites, might be viewed as a companion to the Fouchecourt CD. It includes orchestral suites derived from Rameau's operas Platee, Pigmalion, and Dardanus. The Fouchecort CD includes 5 arias from Platee together with an aria from Dardanus, thus giving the listener a good overview to these two works and to a sampling of several others.
As is virtually all the music of the French Baroque, the operas of Rameau are linked inextricably to the dance. Each of the three suites in this recording begins with an overture of about four minutes in length followed by a succession of dance movements. Rameau offers an excellent short overview of French dance in a selection called "Les differents caractieres de la danse" from Pigmailon. In the scope of seven minutes, Rameau gives short examples of ten major French dance forms seamlessly linked together. This is an exquisite introduction to what Rameau's music has to offer. Many listeners may associate the French Baroque with classicism and with formal, cold elegance. Rameau is elegant indeed, but his music is full of harmonic daring, strong rhythms, imaginative orchestration, and a wide range of emotion. It is clasicissm with passion.
The 33 minute suite from Dardanus is the longest on this CD and the highlight of the recording. The opening selections consist of a tribute to the power of erotic love over human affairs, especially the brief "Marche pour les differentes nations" in which "Mortals of all states and ages" pay tribute to Cupid. A solo for piccolo is featured in the minuet, and the suite concludes with a masterly chaconne. The dance movements include rigaudons, minuets, tambourins, and rondeaus together with a slow scene on the power of sleep, "Someil de Dardanus".
The Opera Platee is a comedy in which Jupiter pretends to fall in love with a frog nymph who flatters herself that Jupiter's attentions are genuine. This opera has received some attention in recent years with Fouchecourt performing it for the New York City Opera. The orchestral suite on this CD includes a storm scene called "orage" an "Air for the happy fools and the sad fools" together with a selection of pantomines, minuets, and rigaudons.
Roy Goodman is among the finest conductors of early music, and I have enjoyed his recordings of Haydn symphonies with the Hanover Band. The ensemble on this CD, the European Union Baroque Orchestra, is formed anew every year by promising young baroque musicians at an early stage of their careers. The recordings on this CD date from 1999, 2001, and 2004, and thus offer the listener the opportunity to hear Goodman conduct three ensembles with essentially different performers.
The music and the performances on this budget-priced CD are a delight. Together with the CD of Rameau arias by Fouchecourt, this CD will open the world of Rameau operas to the listener.