France has this year saluted one of its greatest composers with many performances including revivals of some long-forgotten works. Unlike his homeland, America hasn’t exactly been vigorous about commemorating the 250th anniversary of the death of Jean-Philippe Rameau.
However, the ever-enterprising Opera Lafayette has trumped all by mounting the first staging since the 1700s of a true rarity—Les fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, ou Les dieux d’Égypte—which after its premiere in Washington, DC earlier this week was performed in New York at the Rose Theater on Thursday evening. An undiscovered masterpiece was not revealed but it proved an enchanting evening particularly in the winsomely eclectic production that brought together three remarkably diverse dance groups: The New York Baroque Dance Company, Kalanidhi Dance, and the Seán Curran Company.
Like the better known Les Indes Galantes, Les fêtes is an example of that peculiar genre, the opéra-ballet, which flourished during the first half of the 18th century and which placed equal importance on singing and dancing. Although French opera since its origins in the 17th century with the works of Lully had always included some dance movements, these opéra-ballets— usually set in exotic locales–featured much more extended divertissements.
Rather than containing a single plot and cast of characters, the typical opéra-ballet was made up of several entrées or short self-contained mini-operas, each roughly 30 to 40 minutes in length. Often these were preceded by a prologue where mythological characters—in Les fêtes’s case, Amour (Love) and Hymen (Marriage)—introduce the themes to be explored in the entrées which follow.
As Rameau was exceptionally adept at writing harmonically adventurous and rhythmically daring dance music, he created a number of these omnibus works, often with quite similar titles, including Les fêtes de Polymnie and Les fêtes d’Hébé. Les Arts Florissants’s next production at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in January will be the opéra-ballet often cited as having created the genre: Campra’s 1710 Les fêtes vénitiennes.
The three entrées of 1747’s Les fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour are Osiris, Canope and Aruéris ou Les Isies which share the rare unity of having Egyptian themes. Invariably, lovers are beset by cross-cultural differences (the heroine of Osiris, for example, is an Amazon queen) and intruding gods appearing in human guise. Inevitably after some minor misunderstandings, all ends happily, just in time for an extended suite of dances.
Opera Lafayette emphasized the culture clashes by inviting three dance troupes to participate: a company dedicated recreating dance styles of the 18th century, an all-female contingent which performs Indian classical dance and a thoroughly 21st century group. The directors of each—Catherine Turocy, Anuradha Nehru and Seán Curran, respectively—staged one entrée (with Turocy also taking on the prologue) and all contributed to the evening’s extensive choreography.
While most often dancers performed with their own company’s members, as the evening progressed more and more there was a fascinating cross-pollination. Particularly delicious were the Curran dancers clad in skin-tight turquoise and silver body suits partnering the ladies of Kalanidhi who wore traditional Indian dress with clusters of bells around both ankles. The vibrant visceral impact of these dancers was in stark contrast to the sweet delicacy of Turocy’s troupe.
The cast assembled by conductor Ryan Brown included some French veterans of that country’s flourishing early-music scene alongside young American singers. Notable was soprano Ingrid Perruche, featured in many of Christophe Rousset’s recent Lully revivals, as Memphis (!) in Canope where her vivid command of French declamation and ornamentation overcame a not particularly beautiful timbre.
Opera Lafayette regular Claire Debono as both the Amazon queen Orthésie and Orie, the mortal pursued by the God of the Arts during the Olympic-Games-like competition in Aruéris, sometimes pushed her voice into harshness but also showed off an easy trill.
Finding modern tenors comfortable with the high-flying haut-contre demands made by Rameau can be difficult but Brown did well with his three. As both Osiris and Aruéris, American tenor Jeffrey Thompson took a bit of time to warm up but eventually showed an enviable flair for this music. Now based in France, Thompson used a highly stylized approach that sometimes went a bit far but was always musical and idiomatic.
Aaron Sheehan proved that his classy Charpentier Orphée earlier this season was no fluke, and in a brief ariette in the final entrée Kyle Bielfield showed promise. French bass François Lis, a participant in numerous European Rameau revivals, showed off awe-inspiring abs but used his booming voice too crudely to savor the nuances of Canope’s music.
The sixteen members of the Opera Lafayette Chorus responded with enthusiasm but sometimes sounded scattered and underpowered—perhaps another six or eight singers might have helped in doing full justice to Rameau’s demanding choral writing. The hard-working orchestra, too, could have used some reinforcements.
While Brown’s tempi nearly always sounded just right, the playing was a bit timid; for example the keening oboes and bassoons in the striking overture failed to make much an impression. Perhaps the positioning of the orchestra and chorus at the back of the Rose’s deep stage—with the singers and dancers performing in front of them—served to dampen the forces’ impact.
Although the vocal writing in Les fêtes does not compare to the composer’s finest, the many dances are among Rameau’s most felicitous and infectious. The fragmentary nature of opéra-ballets makes them difficult to pull off on stage but Opera Lafayette’s economical but inventive production made a good case for this charming work neglected for over 200 years.
In several weeks, the work’s first recording will be released on the Glossa label featuring conductor Hervé Niquet and his Le Concert Spirituel.
One also hopes that the valuable series of recordings that Brown and Opera Lafayette have been making for the Naxos label will also find room for Les fêtes to join an earlier CD of arias by Rameau written for the famed haut-contre Pierre Jélyotte sung by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt.
It is possible in the meantime to enjoy on YouTube a video of the delightful modern premiere of Les fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, ou Les dieux d’Égypte (in concert) performed by Niquet’s group at the Opéra Royal at Versailles.
In Europe, Rameau 2014 continues in : La Temple de la Gloire will be recorded this week while productions of Castor et Pollux simultaneously hold the stage in Paris and Lille.
Christopher Corwin is the reviewer formerly known as DeCaffarrelli.
Photographs: Louis Forget