Rameau's opera-ballets must have been - and still are - fabulous aural and visual spectacles. But, let's face it, as purely home-listening experiences they're not for everyone - nor even for every baroque enthusiast. You need to be able to turn a blind eye to nonsensical plots, one-dimensional characters and ludicrous libretti; and, while a knowledge of French is not essential, it's at least useful to be familiar with the phrase "Que vois-je?", which tells you when something is about to happen. But if you can take all this, the rewards include scintillating, varied and richly scored music, brilliant and demanding singing roles, with never a dull musical moment - and all the more so when performed with the refreshing panache and expertise of this present recording from the young, Lyon-based early-music ensemble Les Nouveaux Caractères under the superbly stylish direction of Sébastien d'Hérin.
"Les Surprises de l'Amour" consists of three separate tableaux or "entrées", depicting the amorous adventures of mythical Greek gods and humans. Each one of these, "L'Enlèvement d'Adonis", "La Lyre Enchantée" and "Anacréon", consists of a succession of short airs, recitatives, orchestral interludes and dance movements - linked, of course, by the regulation dubious storyline - and each of the three entrées handily occupies a separate disc in this recording. The singing, from nine soloists including sopranos, mezzo, tenors and baritones, is first-class throughout. The instrumental scoring is richly coloured by pairs of treble recorders, horns, oboes and bassoons as well as the usual strings and continuo, and the players of this extremely talented and energetic period-instrument ensemble respond superbly to Rameau's brilliant instrumental passages - try sampling the Ouverture (CD I, 1-3), Entrée (14), Airs (16), Descente de Diane (23); on CD II, the Gavottes (11), Tambourin (23) or Contredanse (28); or, on CD III, Légèrement (1) or Sommeil (10).
Altogether this set is sure to please dedicated Rameau fans. For those less familiar with the late-baroque master's theatre music, a shorter work on a single disc, such as the gorgeous opera-ballet "Pygmalion", would make an ideal introduction; there are excellent recordings available under William Christie, Hervé Niquet, James Richman and Gustav Leonhardt. But for a full-scale evening of Rameau theatre, the present recording of "Les Surprises de l'Amour" is among the very finest. The recording is first-class as well, as are the booklet notes with plot summaries, and all texts and translations are given. Les Nouveaux Caractères certainly live up to their name - they're a terrific ensemble and a great credit to their director Sébastien d'Hérin, and I hope we'll be hearing plenty more from them.