Cher Public

Djinn and tonic

Next week Juilliard Opera stages probably the greatest 18th century French opera Hippolyte et Aricie and to mark this eagerly awaited event “Trove Thursday” offers one of Rameau’s rarest full-length works, Acante et Céphise featuring The English Concert conducted by Trevor Pinnock (not pictured). 

Of the four titans of 18th century opera—Handel, Gluck, Mozart and Rameau–the last unfortunately remains the least known and performed. One only rarely gets to experience his magical oeuvre performed live in the US although we’ve been lucky that Les Arts Florissants since the early 1990s has performed eight of his greatest works in New York though just his first and last operas—Hippolyte (featuring Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as one of its Phèdres) and Les Boréades—in staged productions.

Not to sound ungrateful but it’s particularly sad that the group’s remarkable and wildly entertaining Les Paladins (which I caught twice in Paris) was never seen in the US.

Rameau has now even made it to the Met albeit via just a few moments shipwrecked on The Enchanted Island. I skipped New York City Opera’s recent Pigmalion which I gather wasn’t entirely a bad decision but Christophe Rousset (whose excursions into French baroque music were the subject of a recent column in The New Yorker by Alex Ross) has recently released a new version of Rameau’s most famous one-act for those who want to explore beyond current revivals of Shaw and Lerner/Loewe’s take on the same myth.

Very often at home I savor Rameau’s irresistibly seductive world which blossomed late waiting until he composed his first opera in 1733at 49. The 250th anniversary of the composer’s death in 2014 brought an explosion of recordings of his lesser-known works so now we have Les Fêtes de Polymnie and Les Fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour on CD for the first time as well a much-needed new edition (also under Rousset) of the underestimated Zäis.

Oddly the lush but relatively concise Acante, a three-act pastorale héroïque and his last long work until the miraculous final flowering of Paladins and Boréades, remains unaccountably ignored. Just sample its surprisingly “ballistic” overture featuring an early use of clarinets! This BBC broadcast is one of the very few times it has been performed since the 18th century, although Frans Brüggen did record a suite of dance music in 1997. Brüggen’s superb Rameau CDs are all instantly recommendable.

Reading about Rameau in English has until recently been mostly limited to the serious but hopelessly outdated book by floridly-named Cuthbert Girdlestone, a Firbankian moniker that could have sprung from the latest installment of Joel Rozen’s BASTA.

But Graham Sadler finally released his long-awaited book The Rameau Compendium and if its coverage is more glancing than expected, it’s a welcome and essential resource. I recently happened upon Simon Trowbridge’s self-published biography of Rameau which is mostly well done although its appendix of performance annals is hopelessly incomplete.

For those wanting a taste of Hippolyte prior to next week’s performances, Stéphane Degout’s fine new CD Enfers features several of Thésée’s most powerful scenes along with a wonderful collection of other Rameau and Gluck excerpts.

Even more Rameau is due soon—the rare Näis (not to be confused with Zäis!) by Budapest’s impressive Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra and a second La Temple de la Gloire arising from last year’s performances by San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque.

Juilliard’s Hippolyte (sans prologue unfortunately) premieres on April 17 with two further performances on the 19th and 21st. Some tickets are still available.

Its Aricie will surely sound very different from Beverly Sills (opposite Placido Domingo as Hippolyte!) who briefly dipped into Rameau when Sarah Caldwell bravely mounted the opera in Boston more than fifty years ago.

Rameau: Acante et Céphise ou La Sympathie
BBC
November 1983
Broadcast

Céphise: Anne-Marie Rodde
Zirphile: Jennifer Smith
Acante: Jean-Claude Orliac
Oroes -Stephen Varcoe

The English Concert and Chorus
Trevor Pinnock, conductor

Before today, “Trove Thursday” has only once before featured Rameau—a stirring Les Boréades, his astonishing final masterpiece.

Acante can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

Well over 130 “Trove Thursday” podcasts posted since the series began in September 2015 remain available from iTunes for free, or via any RSS reader.