The revival of interest in recent years in period performances and early music has saved some extraordinary music from virtual oblivion. Among those responsible for this resurgence are the American-born conductor William Christie and his period ensemble Les Arts Florissants. Christie is a lover of the French Baroque. Since its founding in 1979, Les Arts Florissants has been bringing the beauties of French Baroque and other early music to life in live performances and recordings. In particular Christie and his ensemble have championed the works of Jean-Phillipe Rameau, the leading opera composer of the French Baroque, whose work remains too little known. Rameau composed a series of operas in many genres beginning at the age of 50.
Christie's recording of Rameau's "Les Fetes D'Hebe" dates from 1997 and remains the only complete recording of this opera in the catalogue. Composed in 1739, the opera remained popular throughout Rameau's life but, according to Nicholas Anderson's liner notes, then languished unperformed until its 20th Century revival. Christie and Les Arts Florissants deserve gratitude and huzzas. The opera and the performance are lilting and inspired. It is easy to fall in love with this music.
"Les Fetes D'Hebe" is in the form of an opera-ballet and reflects the love of Rameau's public for the dance and for exotic, pastoral settings. The opera consists of a Prelude and three loosely connected acts set on the Seine which celebrate the arts of poetry, music and dance. The score consists of a succession of brief recitives and arias, but the heart of each act is a lengthy interlude consisting of a set of instrumental dances and vocal numbers. These ballet sections include baroque forms such as the bouree, gavotte, passepied, rigaudon, and the ever-present minuet. I liked to use my imagination with the music to visualize the dancing onstage. The final act of the opera also includes Rameau's famous, highly stylized "Tambourin" and an accompanying highly contrasting "Musette". Rameau borrowed both these sections as well as some other dance music from his harpsichord suite "Pieces de Clavecin" composed in 1724. Here is a link to a version of the Pieces de Clavecin I have enjoyed performed by harpsichordist Alan Cuckston. Rameau: Harpsichord Music (Complete), Vol. 1
The performance on this recording is spirited on all sides, from the conducting, to the period ensemble, to the chorus and soloists. The recorders and drums are shown to great prominence as is the continuo ensemble consisting of cello, bass viol, double bass, and harpsichord. The soloists feature the rare high tenor of Jean-Paul Fouchecourt who offers his most extended performance in this opera in the role of Mercury in the third act. The other soloists include mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, high tenor Paul Agnew, soprano Sophie Daneman, and baritone Thierry Felix.
Rameau wrote "Les Fetes D'Hebe" primarily to entertain an audience looking for light, accessible music and dance. He succeeded in this aim by writing music with as much beauty as in many works that claim to be more profound. With its pastoral ambience, the opera captures a range of feeling and emotion. Lovers of the French Baroque will enjoy getting to know this rare work performed by Christie and Les Arts Florissants.