July 12, 2018


Rameau: Le Temple de la Gloire—original 1745 version. Marc Labonnette and Philippe-Nicolas Martin, baritones; Camille Ortiz, Gabrielle Philiponet, Chantal Santon-Jeffery and Tonia D’Amelio, sopranos; Artavazd Sargsyan and Aaron Sheehan, hautes-contre (countertenors); Philharmonia Baroque Chorale and Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Philharmonia Baroque. $30 (2 CDs).

     Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was the multimedia master of his day, and thanks to a steady supply of funding from the Bourbon court in France, was able again and again to indulge his taste – and the taste of French royalty – for spectacular musical-theatrical productions that were part opera, part ballet, and part virtually unclassifiable entertainment mixing a wide variety of instruments, vocal parts and special effects.  Rameau’s influence was formative for later French opera: while Italian composers focused on the voice and Germans more on the orchestra, French opera sought and generally achieved a nearly equal balance of vocal and instrumental material, so that an opera by, say, Berlioz, has a completely different sound and emphasis from one by Verdi or Wagner.

     In truth, the differences were already pronounced in Rameau’s own time, when the primary competition for a work such as Le Temple de la Gloire – which is officially deemed an opera-ballet – was in the form of Italian opera seria, although “competition” is not exactly the right word for works composed for entirely different audiences in completely different countries. With historical hindsight, though, the differing approaches are quite clear: for example, the French emphasis on careful and correct pronunciation of all words in the libretto, a notable feature of later French opera, is already present in Rameau – and contrasts strongly with the Italian approach of advancing the story through recitative and using elaborately varied da capo arias for generic responses and emotional expressions (thus making it possible for composers such as Handel to reuse material intact in entirely different contexts).

     Le Temple de la Gloire has a libretto by none other than Voltaire, and Rameau was scrupulous in setting the words so they and their philosophical/instructional message would be abundantly clear to the court audience. It was because of that audience, specifically the court of Louis XV, that this work has been known for some time only in its revised and somewhat censored 1746 edition rather than its original one from 1745. Now, though, the original version of Le Temple de la Gloire has received a marvelous and thoroughly engaging set of performances by the Philharmonia Baroque Chorale and Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan – and live recordings of those performances, from April 2017, have been used to produce an absolutely first-rate two-CD release, a world première recording, on the orchestra’s own label.

     From start to finish, this is marvelous entertainment. Rameau was a master of orchestration who had at his disposal some absolutely top-notch players, notably of woodwinds – which are far more prominent in Le Temple de la Gloire than in non-French music of Rameau’s time. The work’s overture includes two piccolos along with oboes, trumpets, horns and bassoons, and has a central section prominently featuring two flutes. The first scene of the opera-ballet, its prologue, opens with a bassoon duet in dialogue with violins playing descending scales – a kind of tone painting of the cave of Envy, where the whole production begins. Later there is an unsurprising touch through the inclusion of a scene of shepherds and shepherdesses, but with the surprising inclusion of bagpipes – actually the musette de cour, whose sound, initially unexpected, fits the action perfectly. The plot of Le Temple de la Gloire, or rather the lesson it was created to teach, has to do with the proper route to glory for rulers. Voltaire makes it clear that brutal conquest will not do, nor will indulgence of the senses through Dionysian revels: it is only magnanimous decision-making in the name of peace and prosperity that makes a ruler deserving of entry into Le Temple de la Gloire. So this is a “message” opera, or opera-ballet, and is intended strictly for rulers by divine right. But it is not for the words, however skillfully Voltaire crafted them to serve his purpose, that listeners will engage with this lovely recording. It is the sheer variety of instrumentation that stands out most clearly, including the absence of the harpsichord (thus focusing the audience’s attention elsewhere, notably on the winds) and the cleverness of presentation (divided violas, for example, are prominent). The words, of course, do matter, and are sung by soloists and chorus alike with sensitivity to historical performance practice plus a penchant for characterization – there really is personality delineation here among the priests and priestesses, Romans, Bacchantes, Muses, demons and others who pervade the production.

     And that is where the frustration of what is otherwise a splendid release comes in. Rameau’s theatricality and understanding of spectacle were very pronounced, and Le Temple de la Gloire really does have multimedia elements that range from special sound effects to frequent scene changes to unpredictable alterations of solos, duets, choruses, dances and more. This is a work that cries out to be seen, one that suffers greatly when it is only heard on a CD release – no matter how fine. Everything is part of the overall effect of Le Temple de la Gloire, including costumes and staging and all the visual appurtenances with which a supremely wealthy ancien régime court could afford to lavish its entertainments. The music is marvelous, the performance under McGegan is absolutely top-level from the first note to the last, and having the original version of Le Temple de la Gloire available in any form at all is a tremendous treat. But again and again, as one type of music gives way to another, a listener is going to miss the visual elements that originally tied this whole sprawling work together, giving it coherence that, on a strictly musical basis, it lacks (albeit by intent). There are marvels to be heard here, and marvels to be seen, but only the former are available in CD form, and the latter will be sorely missed by anyone captivated and enraptured by what Rameau and Voltaire created in Le Temple de la Gloire.

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