Rameau couldn't help being a musical revolutionary. Perhaps the fact he was so far ahead of his time explains the extraordinary freshness his music seems to have in ours. Parisian audiences at the 1749 premiere of "Zoroastre", his fourth "tragedie lyrique", were just as puzzled as they had been at his first, "Hippolyte et Aricie", sixteen years earlier and the reception was lukewarm. Undeterred, the composer completely refashioned the opera in 1756 to produce the version presented here. It turns out to be a masterpiece. One of the things the original audience found hard to accept was the novelty of the story, which is derived neither from Clasical mythology nor Italian romantic epic. The opera is set in ancient Bactria, then part of the Persian empire, now part of modern Afghanistan. It concerns the efforts of the prophet Zoroaster to introduce a new religion celebrating goodness and light and to win the hand of Princess Amelite, heiress to the throne of the kingdom. Ranged against him are the evil sorcerer and tyrant Abramane, who derives his magic from the demonic forces of the old religion, and Erinice, another princess in love with Zoroaster, whose anguished dilemma whether to kill the hero or warn him of Abramane's plots make up a good deal of the drama. As Graham Sadler explains at length in the booklet notes, contemporaries immediately recognized the libretto as an allegory of the ideals of freemasonry, leading many later critics to decribe the opera as Rameau's "Magic Flute" (the similarity between the names Zoroastre and Sarastro is no coincidence), though you won't find any of the high jinks of Papageno More fancifully the opera has been described as Rameau's "Parsifal", a valid comparison if it refers to the way the struggle between light and darkness is reflected in the composer's orchestration, some of his most extraordinary. In the enchanter Abramane "Zoroastre" also has one of Baroque opera's most memorable villains, who expresses the Machiavellian credo that "Tous les succes sont legitimes" (success justifies every crime). The writers of the "Penguin Guide to Music" pay Rameau a backhanded compliment when they claim that in the dark music he wrote for Abramane he was clearly "taking a leaf out of Gluck's book." "Zoroastre" comes at least a decade before Gluck's reforms. Finally, the libretto affords a great opportunity for all the spectacle, ballets and choruses you would expect from a French Baroque opera : the wedding ceremonies, coronations, religious initiations and demonic sacrifices give ample scope for the composer's musical imagination.
This is not the first time the opera has appeared on disc. Twenty years ago, Sigiswald Kujiken and La Petite Bande recorded it for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. Though that version (not currently available) was both excellently played and sung, it was never completely satisfactory. Its remote beauty was never very convincing as drama. Kujiken was obviously far more at home with the ethereal music of the good spirits than with the rowdiness of the demons. Christie, on the other hand, is absolutely gripping and gives us an all-round vision of the opera. By my count this is his ninth recording of a stage work by Rameau and this depth of experience certainly shows here, right from the opening bars, another of Rameau's innovations since he discarded the traditional prologue in favour of an overture illustrating the concepts behind the opera. Pounding chords representing both a thunderstorm and Abramane's oppressive hold over the people of Bactria give way to luminous music evoking the liberation and enlightenment Zoroastre will bring.The listener is immediately drawn into the drama by the muscular playing of Les Arts Florissants, who manage to combine a sense of forward propulsion with alertness to every orchestral detail. Christie's reading is grittier, never afraid to sacrifice a little smoothness for the sake of theatricality. This is seen to best effect in Act Four, where Abramane conjures up demons and the spirit of vengeance in order to destroy his hated rival. In Christie's hands, this powerful scene with its weird harmonies is as vivid as Rubens' painting of the Last Judgement on the cover. The same grittier approach applies to the young, mostly unknown cast. One of the other problems with the Kujiken recording was that because they were both sweet-toned it was difficult to tell the two rival soprano princesses apart. That doesn't happen here, not that the singing of Gaelle Mechaly as Erinice or Anna Maria Panzarella as Amelite is not beautiful and, when necessary, sweet, but you really hear the bitterness and torment in Erinice's voice and the determination in Amelite's. Mark Padmore is equally good as the ardent visionary Zoroastre, proving that the cruelly high writing for "haute contre" does not necessarily make for an effeminate hero. Bass Nathan Berg clearly relishes playing the evil Abramane, injecting the role with a mixture of gleeful malevolence and youthful dynamism. Christie also helps the drama along by shifting a few of the dances and arias to an appendix. Highly recommended to all lovers of French opera. A spectacular recording in every sense of the word.