Jean Philippe Rameau’s late-Baroque opera “Naïs” (1749) served as the luminous grand finale of MÜPA’s recent Early Music Festival, which featured six concerts with international artists in the field of early music performance practice. From February 19 to March 4, soloists like countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and soprano Simone Kermes, and the groups Europa Galante, Ensemble Artaserse, Bach Consort Wien, and Budapest’s own Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra eloquently demonstrated the tightly structured and highly ornamented style of music written roughly between 1685 and 1760.
“Naïs,” co-produced by the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles (CMBV) and co-presented by the Institut français de Budapest, was performed by the masterful Purcell and Orfeo forces under the baton of György Vashegyi. They were joined by seven superb solo singers from France, who sailed through this unstaged version of the resplendent three-act score with polished stylistic acumen.
Within the 75 years of the Baroque Era, hundreds of European composers wrote a plethora of scores that represented the first flood of highly structured large compositional forms, with Johann Sebastian Bach leading the way as the most prolific. Among the several regional stylistic attributes, though, the French had penned the most specific and complicated type of musical embellishments, called “agréments.” As a result, the French Baroque style is somewhat less understood than the German, English, or Italian styles of the time, and is arguably more challenging to perform because of its intricacy, the specificity of its vocalism, its arcane internal rhythmic shifts, and its artistocratic character (even if the plot was no more serious than the idyllic trysts of nymphs and shepherds).
“Naïs” is unfortunately not well known (not only to the general public but to even early music aficionados) even though it’s a stunning example of late Baroque spectacles which reveled in a stage crowded with visual effects, dance numbers that served plot development, arias of excerptable worth, a libretto rich with double-entendre, and music in which drums and percussion signalled mood changes. “Naïs’ ” allegorical tale uses mythical characters whose actions and thoughts, although pivoting around a complicated love story, essentially illuminate the philosophical issues surrounding the treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle that closed the War of the Austrian Succession. The work is considered to be a “pastorale heroïque” and its oft-used subtitle is “Opera for peace.”
“Naïs” was originally meant to be staged with two choruses and a corps de ballet, and requires solo singers who are able to toss off the multiplicity of agréments and speedy vocal runs with ease. In the title role, Chantal Santon-Jeffrey’s velvety soprano elegantly negotiated the demanding series of highly expressive and unusually wide-ranged arias as a water-nymph who is caught in a socio-political melodrama and whose affections are sought by the competing Télénus (Pluto in disguise) and Astérion. Another soprano, Daniela Skorka, whose sweetly executed high notes graced the smaller role of the shepherdess, Flora, a symbolic character that more or less represents the typical attention paid to the beguilements of Nature’s bounty throughout early French vocal works.
We were fortunate that the two high tenors Reinoud van Mechelen and Manuel Nunez-Camelino were available for the roles of Neptune and Astérion. Their skillful performances of effortlessly floated fioritura were a delight to hear, as were baritones Florian Sempey as Jupiter and Thomas Dolié as Pluto/Télénus — both gifted singing actors, and Sempey especially affecting as the drama’s spiritual guide. Philippe-Nicolas Martin offered a pleasingly sonorous bass in the role of Palémon.
“Naïs” is also a model of innovation, according to CMBV’s representative Julien Dubruque, who gave a fascinating pre-concert talk. “Rameau’s theatrical revolution [in ‘Naïs’] was that he included much more music than was the custom,” he explained. “It contains ten times more music than in [his previous popular opera] ‘Hippolyte and Aricie.’ This one of the reasons to present ‘Naîs’ in concert form.” Rameau also wrote an extended Prologue instead of a traditional Overture, and used ballet sequences throughout as allegories. “They were not abstract dances: the libretto has eloquent descriptions [as to how] the dances were sympathetic [to the plot]. Rameau’s music suggests everything that was meant to be seen.”
Accordingly, Rameau included the ‘musette,’ a small folk bagpipe, in the orchestration. Its presence painted a lovely bucolic scenario behind Astérion’s dreamy Act II “bergerette” (shepherd’s song). The composer elevated the fagott (bassoon) from its usual position as part of the continuo contingent to become a melodic obbligato instrument. Beautifully played by Dóra Király, this feature added a notable amount of rosy resonance to whatever it accompanied. The only bit of “staging” here was to place the orchestra’s drummer/percussionist Zoltán Varga in the front, so all could see his perfectly executed rhythmic contributions on the drums, the timpani, the tambourine and triangle, as the sounds that signalled critical points in the drama and provided some of the many engaging elements of sonic delight.
The performers also recorded this work at MÜPA the following day for a future CD release. Worth the wait!