on 31 July 2000
This superb recording should please both those who consider themselves "Ramistes" and those who simply enjoy pre - 19th century music. Previous recordings of Rameau have always seemed to me to be rather dull, but this one is full of energy and commitment and directed with flair.
The cast is generally a good one, and in the case of the eponymous hero, sublime, and Minkowski obtains playing of real verve from his orchestra; the choral singing is incisive throughout. The part of the heroine, Iphise, is sung by the flavour-of-the-month soprano, Véronique Gens, and she never fails to give pleasure with her lovely tone, although her manner of address does not seem to me quite distinctive enough for a Rameau heroine, and her sense of the words is at times rather generalized. Her would - be lover Antenor is sung by Laurent Naouri, who gives a nobly dramatic account of "Monstre Affreux," and the wizard Ismenor is taken with credible sympathy by Jean-Philippe Courtis. Mireille Delunsch enjoys herself in the soubrette - ish role of Venus, and the much - hyped Magdalena Kozená turns up in a couple of smaller parts.
The finest singing on the recording is, appropriately, by the Dardanus, John Mark Ainsley, who takes himself completely seriously in the role - there is none of the tongue-in-cheek attitude that afflicts some singers in such parts, and he is equally credible as the conquering hero and the forlorn lover. His singing is always lyrical, his French completely idiomatic and his mastery of the complex music absolute, but it is his attention to words which gives the purest delight; at every turn one is startled by some grace in delivery or some nuance of phrasing - the little air "D'un Amant empressé lui parler le langage" is full of these, and his scene with Iphise is heart-rendingly done - "Vous fuyez, inhumaine" is an especially poignant moment.
There were one or two instances in his performance where I found myself wondering if his tone, with its distinctive sweetness, were not hardening a little, and if he is not doing too much of the wrong kind of music for him; his recent Lensky at ENO had wonderful moments but he struggled to rise above the orchestra during the aria. On the evidence of the present recording, he should perhaps be preparing to take on the mantle of the French classical tenor of our time, in such roles as Admetus and Pylades - amazing, really, to be able to say this about an English singer!
This "Dardanus" is fresh, vital and fascinating, combining the best virtues of live performance with an utterly precise sound. Fully deserving of five stars.