Un Opéra pour trois rois

A Versailles entertainment for Louis XIV, Louis XV & Louis XVI
Chantal Santon-Jeffrey, Emőke Baráth, Thomas Dolié, Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, György Vashegyi
93:46 (2 CDs in a card folder)
Glossa GCD 924002

This is quite the daftest (musical) idea I have come across in quite some time, a pretentious conceit that simply does not work. It is surprising to find the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles cited as co-producers. Its objective can be found in the subtitle: ‘A Versailles entertainment for Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI’. So what we have is a pastiche that amounts to a huge divertissement with music drawn from composers ranging from Lully through to Gluck and Piccinni and arranged in roughly chronological order. Given that the work is stitched together to form a continuous whole divided into two parts, it, of course, makes little musical sense given the considerable stylistic differences to be encountered during a period spanning over 100 years.

Three characters are involved in this ‘opera’, Apollo (the bass Thomas Dolié), La Renommée (Fame) and La Gloire (Glory), sung by the sopranos Chantal Santon-Jeffery and Emőke Baráth. The text employed is unchanged from its place in the work from which it has been unceremoniously ripped, there thus being not only no dramatic sense or logical continuity, only confusing references to characters that play no part in the present entertainment. In a desperate search for positives, there is quite a lot of music that you won’t find anywhere else on records. I was, for example, delighted to make the acquaintance of the noble récitative  and chorus ‘La volonté du ciel’ from Dauvergne’s ballet Le Retour du printemps  (Versailles, 1765), while, if the chorus from Piccinni’s Atys  (Fontainebleau, 1780) is anything to go by, this tragédie lyrique  might be well worth an airing. But it has to be admitted that there’s some fairly mundane stuff here too, and, by and large, it is the familiar extracts that are the most satisfying. Indeed, in this company, the great opening chorus of lamentation for the dead Castor and aria for Telaire, ‘Tristes apprêts’, from Rameau’s Castor et Pollux  stand out like a shining beacon, though employing the ‘Air sauvage’, the hit number from the same composer’s Les Indes galantes, as the finale smacks of gratuitous opportunism rather than considered judgment.

‘Tristes apprêts’ is beautifully sung by Baráth, who is by some margin the best of the three soloists. As in the past, I find Santon-Jeffery one of the less appealing of the plethora of sopranos (and mezzos) France seems to produce so readily in the early music field. While the voice is not unattractive, it is not steady enough and she uses too much vibrato. Dolié is a bass I’ve greatly admired in the past, especially in György Vashegyi’s splendid recording of Mondonville’s Isbé, but he doesn’t seem at his best here. Similar reservations might be applied to Vashegyi’s direction, which – while never less than idiomatic – is a little earthbound, compared to earlier work in French Baroque repertoire. His period instrument orchestra plays well enough, but without the élan and finish of an ensemble like Les Talens Lyriques, who I’ve probably heard too much recently to avoid invidious comparisons. The choir, a sizable body, is capable but at times too opaque for this music.

Not then, I think, an essential recording and, having proved himself adept in this repertoire, I hope Vashegyi will another time give us something rather more substantial.

Brian Robins