Rameau: Operatic Arias / Brown, Fouchécourt, Lafayette

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This disc should be of interest to anyone the least interested in baroque opera. Jean-Philippe Rameau was granted a long life: he was born two...
This disc should be of interest to anyone the least interested in baroque opera.

Jean-Philippe Rameau was granted a long life: he was born two years before Bach and Handel and survived them both, Handel by five years. He spent his early career as organist and his compositions were mostly for keyboard instruments, primarily harpsichord. Not until he was fifty did he start writing operas, his first success being Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733. The works he wrote during the next twenty years are regarded as the cream of French Baroque opera, Castor et Pollux (1737, revised 1754) possibly his masterwork. His music became unfashionable towards the end of his life but in our time, from the 1960s, many of them have been revived and recorded. I remember hearing a performance of Castor et Pollux on Swedish Radio in the early 1970s, conducted by Harnoncourt, who later recorded the work with the same forces in Stockholm with Gerard Souzay as Pollux. That recording that still ranks high in the Rameau stakes.

On this disc the renowned French haute-contre Jean-Paul Fouchécourt sings a number of arias from eight of Rameau’s stage-works, which can be divided in tragedies lyriques, comedies lyriques and comedies-ballets. The term ‘haute-contre’ should not be confused with ‘counter-tenor’. The latter is a man who sings falsetto in the contralto range while the haute-contre is a high tenor who sings in his natural voice from e to c’’.

The arias on this disc have been chosen to represent Fouchécourt’s great predecessor Pierre de Jélyotte (1713–1797) who sang at the Paris Opéra from 1733 to his retirement in 1755, where he performed 46 characters in 41 works. One of his first assignments was two characters at the premiere of Rameau’s first opera Hippolyte et Aricie and he was given roles in thirteen of the sixteen stage works that Rameau mounted during this period. Nobody knows what he sounded like but contemporary reports say that it was a powerful and supple voice with a wide range. What did ‘powerful’ mean in those days? Certainly not the same thing as today, where powerful means a voice that can ride a Wagnerian orchestra or challenge Verdi’s Aida trumpets. Knowing the music Rameau wrote for him and the orchestral forces he had to compete with one can probably conclude that in today’s terminology it was a lyric voice and that Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is a worthy stand-in for him. Beauty, flexibility and virtuosity were more important components in a singer’s armoury during the 18th century than sheer force.

Hearing Fouchécourt almost twenty years ago I remember him as a very light voiced singer, agile and with beautiful tone. When he recorded Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice in the 1774 Paris version for Naxos five years ago with the same orchestra and conductor (see review) his was still a marvellously handsome voice, in my view an ideal instrument for the part. Four years later, when this disc was recorded, his technical accomplishment is still without reproach, his runs are exemplary and grace notes are applied with the utmost elegance. His soft singing is also very attractive but it seems that he has lost something of the suppleness of tone. It has hardened and he has to work harder than before with a slight widening of vibrato on sustained notes at forte. Today he sounds more like a character tenor, which isn’t as negative as it might seem. This is namely one of the most expressive baroque recitals I have come across. He makes the words tell and he colours the voice accordingly to good theatrical effect. Conveying a character or a situation with vocal means alone is a hard task for any singer or actor but Fouchécourt’s singing has ‘face’.

Ryan Brown and his Opera Lafayette also contribute to make this a highly desirable disc. Besides the aforementioned Orphée he also made a successful recording of Sacchini’s Oedipe some time ago (see review) and since several of the works here are ballets he has rich opportunities to let the orchestra shine – which it does with rhythmic flair, precision and elegance and also in the elegiac numbers he keeps the music alive. There are some spectacular sound effects in Platée (tr. 3, near the end) where the stage instruction says: “… suddenly a great clap of thunder is heard. A shower of fire falls from heaven. Platée runs about the stage in great fright.” If you happen to nod during this long scene – which to be sure seems improbable – you will certainly be woken up!

Musically this is a string of pearls of wonderful scenes with dances and arias, joyful, dramatic, elegiac, beautiful. For a taster of Fouchécourt’s accomplishment try the little arietta from Platée – Quittez nymphes, quittez (tr. 2), where his expertise in coloratura as well as his expressive colouring of the voice are to the fore. Also lend an ear to the elegiac aria from Castor et Pollux (tr. 6) and Neptune’s beautiful aria from Naïs (tr. 12): Cessez de ravager la terre, which has less to do with topical problems like global heating and devastation of the rain-forests than the eternal plague of war.

Ideally one could have wished that this disc had been recorded a couple of years earlier when Fouchécourt’s voice was in even better shape but his deep insight compensates for what loss of tonal quality there is.

Full marks to Naxos for providing not only full texts and translations but also an introduction to each scene with some historical notes and then placing the aria in context.

This disc should be of interest to anyone the least interested in baroque opera.

-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: September 25, 2007

  • UPC: 747313299324

  • Catalog Number: 8557993

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Jean-Philippe Rameau

  • Conductor: Ryan Brown

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Opera Lafayette Orchestra

  • Performer: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt