Rameau: Naïs review – exuberant baroque rarity

Purcell Choir / Orfeo Orchestra / Vasheygi
(Glossa, two CDs)

First performed in 1749, Naïs was the second of four “pastorales héroiques” that Rameau wrote around the turn of the 1750s. This one was his “Opéra pour la paix”, commissioned to celebrate the end of the war of the Austrian succession, which had been resolved with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle the previous year. The premiere of Naïs at the Palais-Royal in Paris was evidently a lavish affair, with spectacular sets, elaborate stage machinery and even pyrotechnics, while Rameau was allowed to add an extra trumpet to the standard opera orchestra. It was performed again with revisions in 1764, but the score was never published in the composer’s lifetime, and did not appear in print until the 1920s. This Hungarian recording, using a modern critical edition of the score, now seems to be the only one currently available on disc.

The libretto of Naïs was written by Louis de Cahusac, who provided the texts for six more of Rameau’s stage works (including what is perhaps his greatest achievement, Les Boréades). The narrative of the three main acts is a straightforward retelling of the god Neptune’s love for the nymph Naïs, who eventually becomes queen of his submarine kingdom. But it’s the prologue, with its grand, celebratory choruses, and vivid martial music, that seems to be the real point of the work, telling the story of how Jupiter mobilised the gods to defeat the Giants and the Titans who were attempting to invade Mount Olympus, and then divided the earth into kingdoms with Jupiter himself ruling over all of them. It’s a thinly disguised allegory, designed to celebrate the role of the French king, Louis XV, in restoring peace to Europe.

Even in the three acts of the opera proper too, however, the characterisation of the protagonists seems rather routine, despite the exuberant, florid arias dotted throughout. What happens in the story often seems far less important than the danced divertissements, which Rameau and Cahusac included in all three acts. This music is often gloriously vivid, and it’s the robust singing of the Purcell Choir and the gutsy, extrovert playing of the Orpheus Orchestra under György Vasheygi that make the strongest impression. Still, the largely francophone cast are first rate: Chantal Santon-Jeffery takes the title role in a suitably winsome way, and Reinoud Van Mechelen is the libidinous Neptune, while Florian Sempey is Jupiter in the prologue and Tirésie in the opera proper. It all adds up to much more than just a decent performance of a real baroque rarity.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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