Rameau: Naïs

Rameau: Naïs
Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, György Vashegyi
Glossa GCD924003. 2CDs 72’44 + 72’26

I have been looking forward to this CD ever since I heard this performance of Naïs in concert in the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in Budapest’s Müpa arts centre on 4 March 2017 during a short early music festival. The recording dates for the CD are given as 4-6 March 2017 and, although there is nothing on the sleeve notes (or evidence on the recording) to suggest that it is a ‘live’ recording, I think it is probably based on a recording of that 4 March concert, presumably with two days of patching afterwards.

Rameau’s Naïs, a Pastorale heroïque, was written in 1749 the aftermath of Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. This concluded the War of the Austrian Succession between Hapsburg Austria and Hungary, Saxony, the Dutch Republic and Great Britain against France and Prussia, and confirmed Marie Theresa’s succession to the Hapsburg thrones of Hungary and Austria. Rameau gave it the subtitle of Opéra pour La Paix (Opera for Peace), its original title of Le triomphe de la paix being amended after concerns about just how triumphant the treaty had actually been for France. Before the story of Naïs starts, the dramatic opening Prologue depicts the tussle for supremacy between Jupiter and Neptune, clearly reflecting the agreement between Louis XV of France and Britain’s George II that concluded the war.

The sheer drama of the Prologue gives way to some rather more intimate music in the following three Acts. These explore the story of the nymph Naïs and Neptune’s attempts to woe her, in competition with two rival suitors, by disguising himself as a mortal. The action takes place during the Isthmian Games, dedicated to Neptune. He calls on the waves to destroys his rivals and whisks Naïs off to his underwater palace and turns her into a Goddess. Rameau takes musical delight in depicting the antics of the Gods and the drama of the Isthmian Games, with scenes of wrestling, boxing and athletics alongside ballet interludes and depictions of nature and the underwater world. They show Rameau to be an absolute master of orchestral colour and texture, heard here in the accompaniments and in the many instrumental pieces – a highlight of the recording and, indeed, of French Baroque opera in general.

The two bassoon players have many prominent roles, and the recording makes their sound a little more evident than it was from my seat in the concert hall, where they were out of sight in the midst of the orchestra. The playing of Dóra Király and Gergely Farkas is outstanding, with their distinctive use of tone colours and beautifully articulated virtuoso passages. Other equally impressive instrumental contributions come from Vera Balogh and Kapolcs Kovács on flute and piccolo, Pier Luigi Fabretti and Edit Kőházi on oboes and recorders, and, as leader, violinist, Simon Standage. Special mention must also go to Patrick Blanc’s playing of the delightful musette, a little French bagpipe with under-arm bellows and a pleasantly plangent tone, in the Act 2 shepherd scene. The busy percussionist Zoltán Varga was positioned at the front of the orchestra to one side, making his contributions the more telling.

As is usual with György Vashegyi performances of French Baroque music with the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra, the vocal soloists are imported from the cooperating partner, the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. They were Chantal Santon-Jeffery (Naïs), Reinoud Van Mechelen (Neptune), Florian Sempey – Jupiter, Tirésie), Thomas Dolié (Pluton, Télénus), Manuel Nuñez-Camelino (Astérion), Daniela Skorka (Flore, Une Bergère), Philippe-Nicolas Martin (Palémon), Márton Komáromi (Protée). As is unfortunately so often the case, and here rather surprising considering the provider of the soloists, with few exceptions, they sang with too much vibrato, not just for my own tastes but, I suggest, for the specific style of French Baroque music, where clarity of ornaments is paramount. With what can sound like a persistent trill, any ornaments applied by the singer can be compromised. Reinoud Van Mechelen’s haute contra voice was particularly effective in his role of Neptune. Along with Manuel Nuñez-Camelino (Astérion), he was also one of the few who reined in his vibrato. Questions of vibrato aside, the others certainly expressed the musical and emotional aspects of the score well.

As for the choral singing, I quote from my review of the live concert: “The 26 strong Purcell Choir was very impressive in the wide range of choruses, clearly understanding the complex issue of French Baroque ornamentation and singing with an unforced clarity. Neither the choir or orchestra are newcomers to this repertoire, and conductor György Vashegyi has very clearly absorbed the style into his bloodstream.”

Other reviews of the Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, and György Vashegyi can be found here.