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GRAMOPHONE (01/2023)
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Reviewer :
Richard Lawrence


Zoroastre, premiered at the Paris Opéra on December 5, 1749, was the fifth opera –and the first tragedy – that Rameau composed to a libretto by Louis de Cahusac. It was sumptuously staged, with a cast that included Marie Fel and Pierre Jélyotte in the leading parts. Cahusac broke new ground by choosing a subject that was not drawn from classical legend or tales of medieval chivalry. He also dispensed with the traditional prologue, which Rameau replaced with a programmatic overture that looks forward to Gluck.

Although the opera ran for 25 performances, it had a mixed reception, and librettist and composer soon set to work on a revision so radical that the opera presented to the public on January 19, 1756, was virtually a new piece. That was the version recorded by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants (Erato, 5/03). This equally excellent new recording is of the original 1749 opera, based on the critical edition by Graham Sadler: given complete, save for three entr’actes comprising two airs and a gavotte already heard.

Like Die Zauberflöte, Zoroastre places a heavy emphasis on the contrast between good and evil, and the triumph of light over darkness; and, as with the Mozart opera, there are clear references to freemasonry. Cahusac, secretary to the grand master of the French grand lodge, was probably a mason; Jélyotte, who took the part of Zoroastre, certainly was. The villain of the piece is Abramane, high priest of Ahriman, the spirit of darkness. He plans to marry and rule with princess Érinice, who rejects his amatory advances but is prepared to ally herself with him. She loves Zoroastre, follower of Orosmade (Ahuramazda, the god of light), whom Abramane has exiled. Unfortunately for her, Zoroastre is in love with Amélite, the legitimate heiress to the throne of Bactria (Balkh, in present-day Afghanistan). Needless to say, Abramane and his priests are eventually dispatched. Érinice does not appear after Act 4: perhaps, like Armida or Medea, she flies off in a chariot.

It’s not hard to see why this first version of Zoroastre was thought unsatisfactory. Whereas Act 4 includes a powerful scene of human sacrifice, after which Abramane summons up infernal spirits, the corresponding divertissement in Act 2 hangs fire with Zoroastre performing a wedding ceremony on some Young Savages. And the plot suffers from what Graham Sadler calls ‘an over-reliance on arbitrary supernatural interventions’. But the opera is well worth getting to know. As so often with Rameau, the most appealing numbers are the choruses and the instrumental airs and dances. The orchestra includes flutes, oboes, horns and trumpets; also a pair of clarinets, their first appearance in French opera. Two bassoons, with nothing but continuo accompaniment, burble along in Abramane’s opening air en rondeau, ‘Non, je ne puis assez punir’ (a forthright performance, here and throughout the opera, from a dark-toned Tassis Christoyannis), and add vigorous support to Vengeance’s ‘Volez, secondez ma puissance’. Piccolos in thirds obligingly provide birdsong as Amélite addresses Hope in ‘Soutien des malheureux’.

The Namur Chamber Choir are fervent in the chorus of woe that opens Act 3. With his effortless top notes and superb breath control, the haute-contre Reinoud Van Mechelen makes an ideal Zoroastre. Jodie Devos and Véronique Gens are well contrasted as the innocent Amélite and the scheming Érinice, and there’s excellent support in several roles from Mathias Vidal and David Witczak. Alexis Kossenko and Les Ambassadeurs – La Grand Écurie (how the French love their long titles!) have followed up their recording of Rameau’s Achante et Céphise (Erato, 2/22) with another triumph.


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