Although dances from Les fetes d’Hebe, were among the very first orchestral pieces by Rameau to appear on LP (Ducretet-Thomson) in the early 1950s, the work has had to wait until now to be recorded in its entirety. Though the libretto, by Antoine Gautier de Montdorge, is probably one of the weakest that Rameau ever set, and was recognized as such by Rameau’s contemporaries, the piece was nevertheless an instant success and enjoyed frequent revivals during the composer’s lifetime. Reasons for this paradox are not hard to find; opera-ballet did not depend so much upon plot for its entertainment as upon features that were colourfully diverting and intellectually undemanding. If the costumes and sets were imaginative, the singers and dancers of high profile, and the music of a kind to capture the imagination of wealthy, pleasure-seeking Parisian society, the success of an opera-ballet was virtually assured. The cast for the first performance of Les fetes d’Hebe, in 1739, had its fair share of stars while subsequent revivals attracted brilliant artists and designers of a younger generation, one of whom was Boucher. His sets, we can imagine, reflected to perfection the elegant, sensuous superficiality of mid-eighteenth-century Parisian social life.
Rameau produced one of his most engaging scores for Les fetes d’Hebe, consisting mainly of newly composed music, but also containing wonderfully evocative orchestral parodies of harpsichord pieces published in the 1720s. The entertainment comprises a prologue and three entrees, or acts which, in a manner typical of opera-ballet, have self-contained rather than continuously developing plots. All is prefaced with a captivating two-movement Overture whose playful second section has much more in common with a Neapolitan sinfonia than a traditional opera overture in the French mould.
William Christie and Les Arts Florissants revel in Rameau’s beguiling pastoral images, tender and high-spirited in turn. The dances belong to one of the composer’s fruitiest vintages and Christie has capitalized upon this with a sizeable band which includes, where appropriate, a section of musettes, pipes and drums. The singers, as always with this conductor, are carefully chosen for their contrasting vocal timbres and the line-up, by and large, is strong. The leading roles in each of the opera’s four sections are fairly evenly distributed between Sophie Daneman, Sarah Connolly, Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, Paul Agnew and Thierry Felix. The first three of this group are consistently engaging; their feeling for theatre, and their intuitive ability to seek out those aspects of Rameau’s vocal writing which enliven it, seldom fail, and they bring considerable charm to their performances. Agnew, too, is on strong form though in the lower end of his vocal tessitura, required for the role of Momus in the Prologue, he sounds less secure than in his more accustomed haute-contre range. That can be heard to wonderful effect elsewhere and, above all, in a duet for a Stream and a Naiad (first Entree) in which he is joined by Daneman. This beguiling little love-song is proclaimed with an innocent fervour and a tenderness which should touch the hearts of all readers. I have not always found the singing of Felix tonally well focused, though have enjoyed his rounded warmth and resonance. Here, the weakness seems to have been addressed and the problem largely, though not entirely, overcome.
Les fetes d’Hebe, above all, contains a wealth of inventive, instrumentally colourful and evocative dances. Small wonder that audiences loved it so much: with music of such vital originality, how could it be otherwise? I doubt if I have previously heard the orchestra of Les Arts Florissants on crisper, more disciplined form than here. Strings have a warmth of tone and a unanimity which pleases throughout; and readers will not be disappointed either by the resonant and pithy contributions of pipe and drum or by the full-blooded singing of the choir. In short Christie and his musicians have done great justice to a score of infinite and subtle allure. A ravishing entertainment, from start to finish.'