RAMEAU Naïs (Vashegyi)
October 18, 1748, saw the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, so ending the War of the Austrian Succession. This conflict, which among other things resulted in the confirmation of the Archduchess Maria Theresa’s position as ruler of the Austrian lands, involved all the European powers. England celebrated in London on April 27, 1749, with a performance in Green Park of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. Five days earlier, the premiere of Rameau’s ‘opera for peace’, Naïs, was given at the Académie Royale de Musique – the Opéra – in Paris. It ran for 48 performances, was revived shortly before the composer’s death in 1764, then disappeared until 1980, when it was performed and recorded by the English Bach Festival.
Naïs is not a tragédie en musique but a pastorale héroïque: not in five acts, therefore, but in three. In the Prologue, Titans and Giants storm the heavens. After their defeat, Jupiter – clearly to be identified with Louis XV – claims heaven and earth but delegates the ruling of the seas to Neptune and the underworld to Pluto. The opera proper opens with the nymph Naïs preparing to preside over the Isthmian Games held in honour of Neptune. The god himself appears but, wishing to be loved for himself, he is in disguise. Naïs is unaware of his identity until the very end, when – the rival suitors Astérion and Télénus having perished in battle – Neptune leads her happily down to his watery kingdom.
The original production must have been a splendid sight, the effects including fire, lightning, collapsing mountains and a sea battle. Here the effects are aural but no less splendid. The vigorous Overture, full of syncopation, trumpets and drums much in evidence, leads straight into the opening chorus. The divertissements do not stand alone but are incorporated into the action: there’s a musical link, too, between the first rigaudon and the chorus that concludes the Prologue. Indeed it’s the choruses and the dances that provide the most appealing music, and the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra under György Vashegyi do them proud. Most of the numbers are brief, but there’s a seven-minute Chaconne, moving from triple to duple time, that is marvellous in its invention and variety. The scoring throughout is delightful, highlights including a piquant combination of piccolo and bassoon in one of the minuets, and a musette (a kind of bagpipe) for the danced musettes.
The first singers of Naïs and Neptune were Marie Fel and Pierre de Jélyotte, two artists who performed in many of Rameau’s operas. Their counterparts on this recording are magnificent. Each has a slow, reflective air – Naïs’s ‘Tendres oiseaux’ and Neptune’s ‘La jeune nymphe que j’adore’ – dispatched with tenderness; but Chantal Santon Jeffery and Reinoud Van Mechelen are no less accomplished in the Italianate runs on words such as ‘éclate’ or ‘lancer’. Another haute-contre, Manuel Nuñez-Camelino is mightily impressive in the high tessitura of Astérion’s ‘Tendres bergers’. Add first-rate performances from the rest of the cast, including Florian Sempey, Thomas Dolié and Daniela Skorka taking six roles between them, and you have a winner.