Raphaël Pichon and Pygmalion have already recorded the 1744 version of Dardanus on CD (Alpha, 4/14). The opera was first staged at the Paris Opéra in 1739. It ran for 26 performances but criticisms of the plot led Rameau and his librettist Leclerc de la Bruère to revise and rewrite, resulting in a ‘nouvelle tragédie’. This DVD-and-Blu-ray from Bordeaux is billed as the 1739 version: true as far as the storyline goes, but the Prologue comes from 1744, as does the Bruit de guerre leading to Act 3 (not Act 5, as the booklet-note has it). And Pichon follows Marc Minkowski’s CD recording (Archiv, 7/00) in adding Dardanus’s air ‘Lieux funestes’ to the prison scene.
None of this textual pick’n’mix should deter any lover of Rameau from investing in this highly recommendable production. But, my goodness, the plot doesn’t half creak. In a powerful, sombre scene, Isménor quite unnecessarily summons his fellow magicians to begin their ‘terrible mysteries’: he is actually a wholly benign figure in his willingness to be of help to the lovelorn Dardanus. Then, in prison, the sleeping Dardanus is visited by a chorus of Dreams: one of them tells him that he must rouse himself urgently to fight a furious monster, but before he awakes – restored to freedom by the goddess Venus in absentia – there’s a da capo air for a female Dream, an equally gentle instrumental Calme des Sens, a gavotte, a chorus (these last two omitted here) and a lengthy trio and chorus. It’s not surprising that composer and librettist decided on a rewrite; however, the scene for Isménor and his magicians was retained.
The music is top-notch, and Michel Fau has done a splendid job in putting the drama across. The set by Emmanuel Charles includes side boxes occupied by the chorus; varying backdrops evoke the 18th century with clouds, waves, a pillared hall. The singers are exotically dressed by David Belugou, Dardanus sporting a red plumed helmet, his enemy Anténor a green one; both have whitened faces with rouge spots. The chorus wear wigs, the dancers – and there are a lot of dances in the divertissements, choreographed by Christopher Williams – also bewigged when not masked or helmeted.
The Prologue introduces Venus and Cupid in a chariot above an arch. Karina Gauvin, praised by Pichon for her ‘physique gourmand “à la Poussin”’, looks splendid in pink and red, and dispatches Venus’s ‘Quand l’aquilon fougueux’ as though it were by Vivaldi. Katherine Watson, with wings to rival the Archangel Gabriel’s, makes a charming Cupid. Act 1 begins with Gaëlle Arquez as Iphise – the sole survivor of Pichon’s 1744 recording – delivering an impassioned ‘Cesse, cruel Amour’. She finds more vulnerability when lamenting Dardanus’s captivity in ‘Ô jour affreux!’ Her father and her suitor, Teucer and Anténor, are superbly well done by Nahuel di Pierro and Florian Sempey, the latter’s pianissimo in the reprise of ‘Monstre affreux’ touching in the extreme. Reinoud Van Mechelen rises to the challenge of the bassoon-flecked melancholy of ‘Lieux funestes’ and makes a credible hero,
In praise of the rest of the performers I would just cite the bouncy ‘Paix favorable’ (adapted from Rameau’s harpsichord piece Les Niais de Sologne) and the exquisite phrasing of the following minuet. Raphaël Pichon conducts admirably. I enjoyed this enormously and so, I hope, will you.