It is now some 12 years since William Christie made an excellent disc of Pancrace Royer's only published collection of harpsichord pieces (1746); and it was reissued recently on CD. Royer was a more prominent figure in French musical life than the comparative unfamiliarity of his name nowadays would suggest. He was an imaginative director of the Concert Spirituel, leader for several years of the Opéra orchestra, and a successful composer for the stage, as well. His ballet-héroIque, Zalde (1739) was especially popular and was still being performed in the 1760s. La Chasse do Zaide is the composer's own harpsichord arrangement of a "symphonie" in the opera and, in this new recital, Christophe Rousset appends it to the pieces of the 1746 publication. That, too, incidently contains a number of transcriptions by the composer of pieces from earlier stage works.
Following on acclaimed releases of Bellerophon and Phaeton, Christophe Rousset continues his revival of Lully's tragedies lyriques for the Aparte label with Amadis. One of the composer's finest scores, Amadis is a masterpiece of French Baroque music. It was Louis XIV himself who asked Lully and his librettist Quinault to base an opera on Montalvo's Amadis de Gaula. Avoiding the usual mythological subjects gave the composer and librettist an opportunity to expand the scope of the tragedie lyrique genre.
In 1745, the king granted Jean-Philippe Rameau the position of Composer du cabinet du roy, which came with a pension. This new period would see productions in a lighter vein, in collaboration with the librettist Louis de Cahusac, and some of the Burgundian musician's most important masterpieces. 'Zaïs', performed in 1748 on the stage of the Académie Royale de Musique, is one of them. This ballet-héroïque gave French music one of its finest works.
"Rescue operas are not what one is used to associating with Handel, yet that, in a sense, is what this is. Costanza, a princess of Navarre, has been shipwrecked on Cyprus, where she now awaits the arrival of her betrothed, Richard the Lionheart (yes, the same). The island's tyrannical ruler, Isacio, fancies her for himself, however, and spends the entire opera trying to prevent the intended union from going ahead, first by sending Riccardo his daughter Pulcheria instead, and, when that has failed thanks to Pulcheria's brave entreaties, by imprisoning Costanza and declaring war. Only with his final defeat by Riccardo's army, aided by Pulcheria's own fiancé Oronte, do things finally turn out happily.
The Baroque music ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, under Christophe Rousset's baton, performs Rameau's Les Indes galantes at the Opéra National de Bordeaux in a sensual and politically engaged production directed by Laura Scozzi, on the occasion of the festivities organized to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Jean-Philippe Rameau's death.
Christophe Rousset's collection of overtures to 17 of Rameau's operas and opéra-ballets, played by his original instrument ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, won a 1998 Gramophone award for best Baroque non-vocal CD, and it's easy to hear why this outstanding performance was recognized. The ensemble plays with unflagging liveliness and brilliant, clean tone. The rhythmic vitality Rousset coaxes from his players is toe-tappingly engaging; at the same time, he maintains a fluidity that avoids metronomic rigidity. The tempos he takes sometimes have a breathtaking fleetness that leaves the listener marveling at the players' virtuosity. The overtures are mostly brief, usually four or five minutes long, but they each contain a world of volatility and drama. Many of them are wonderfully eccentric, with startling juxtapositions and exotic orchestral combinations that keep them from ever settling into any kind of easy predictability.