Enfers: Famous Opera Scenes by Rameau and Gluck
My advice to anyone buying this excellent disc is to start by ignoring the contents of the booklet (apart from the texts and translations) and going straight to playing the music. You will then enjoy a fine selection of excerpts from operas by Rameau and Gluck. On turning to the booklet you will get bogged down in the details of a ‘Mass for the end of time’, the sequence arranged in the form of a Requiem, starting with ‘Introit’ and concluding with ‘Communion & In Paradisum’. The synopsis takes an imaginary ‘Tragedian’ down to the Underworld and up to the Elysian Fields. The opera texts and most of the articles are given in translations by the ever-reliable Charles Johnston; but there is one article, whose windy rhetoric – typically French, some might say – is done no favours in a poor translation by another hand.
No: concentrate on the original dramatic situations. The largest element is some 20 minutes of highlights from Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie. In ‘Puisque Pluton est inflexible’, Theseus begs his (absent) father to release him from the Underworld. Stéphane Degout could make more of the climactic ‘Grand dieu’, where the orchestra falls silent for a moment. Back in the light of day, Theseus makes a final request to Neptune, Degout’s warm baritone beautifully expressing the character’s suffering. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo is powerful in Phaedra’s great scene of remorse; and Raphaël Pichon daringly prolongs the silence before the chorus’s final ‘Hippolyte n’est plus!’.
Degout does rise splendidly to the climax of ‘Monstre affreux’ from Dardanus, after an equally intense – but soft – beginning of the reprise. A sequence from Zoroastre introduces Emmanuelle de Negri, who joins Degout in summoning evil spirits. The Pygmalion chorus comes into its own in sections of the Requiem, an anonymous adaptation from Castor et Pollux. The last one finds Degout in a rapt account of ‘Requiem aeternam’, more familiar as the soprano Télaïre’s ‘Tristes apprêts’.
The Gluck excerpts include a cough and a spit for Stanislas de Barbeyrac as the Danish knight in Armide. In ‘Le calme rentre dans mon coeur’ from Iphigénie en Tauride Pichon under-emphasises the restless figure in the violas that belies Orestes’ words. But the three orchestral numbers from Orphée et Eurydice are vividly played: stentorian brass for the Furies and a limpid flute in the D minor section of the ‘Ballet des Ombres heureuses’. It’s back to Rameau for the very end, an exquisite, languorous ‘Entrée de Polymnie’ from Les Boréades. Forget the ‘end of time’ conceit and marvel at the music, so winningly performed by Pygmalion and Raphaël Pichon.