RAMEAU Les surprises de l’Amour
The background to this unfamiliar work is confusing: let’s get it out of the way as concisely as possible. When first performed at Versailles in 1748, Les surprises de l’Amour comprised a topical prologue and two acts or entrées. It was revived in Paris in 1757 without the prologue but with a new overture and a new, third entrée called Anacréon (a different work from Rameau’s acte de ballet of the same name). It was performed again in 1758 with substantial changes to the second entrée, La lyre enchantée, of which the original version had already been replaced by an acte de ballet from 1753, Les sibarites; later that year Les sibarites stood in for Anacréon.
Phew. It remains to add that this recording consists of the first 1758 version, without Les sibarites. Anybody expecting a drama comparable to, say, Hippolyte et Aricie will be disappointed: it’s an opera-ballet in the manner of Les Indes galantes. Very French in its declamatory recitatives, the prominence of the chorus and – of course – the ballet, it shows Italian influence too: the Ouverture is a three-part sinfonia, there are da capo arias, a sensuous duet in the first entrée, L’enlèvement d’Adonis, and melismas on the (very un-Italianate!) vowels in ‘chaîne’, ‘rire’ and ‘vole’.
It is not a gripping two and a half hours. The best piece is the last, where love and wine are reconciled in the shape of Cupid – the Amour of the title – and Anacreon, follower of Bacchus. It includes a beautiful passage where Anacreon falls asleep to a descending chromatic bass below flute and violins, followed by four pizzicato bars representing raindrops. In fact it’s the instrumental writing that provides the most enchanting moments. L’enlèvement d’Adonis boasts a splendid hunting chorus, oboes and horns to the fore, followed by a Rondeau tendre: oboes and horns again, plus birdsong.
The continuo in the recitatives is augmented by an unwritten middle part for the gamba, I don’t know with what justification: it makes the texture thick and rather sombre. The singing is good, not outstanding. Alpha for gap-plugging, beta plus for performance.