“Opera Baroque” box set – Les Arts Florissants, William Christie/ Ensemble 415, René Jacobs/ Concerto Vocale, René Jacobs/ Hilliard Ensemble, Paul Hillier – Arkiv, et al. Harmonia mundi (39 CDs+3 DVDs)

by | Jan 2, 2014 | Classical Reissue Reviews

“Opera Baroque” box set – Les Arts Florissants, William Christie/ Ensemble 415, René Jacobs/ Concerto Vocale, René Jacobs/ Hilliard Ensemble, Paul Hillier – Arkiv, et al. Harmonia mundi HMX 2908658.99 (39 CDs and 3 DVDs) TT: 46 hours, 56 minutes (2/11/14) ****½:

This 19-volume set may look like a college course in Baroque opera, but it’s so much better. It’s not boring. But try not to treat it as some exotica you occasionally sample, like Indonesian rijsttafel; instead, listen to all of it over a short period so that you can catch the flavor of the different schools of opera. It is broken into four of them: Italian, French, English, and German. While they share common characteristics – a penchant for mythological themes, use of recitative, and heart-stopping melismas – these four schools are quite different from one and other. I won’t tell you how (the scholarly program notes do that quite nicely), but you will probably warm up to some styles more than others.

Of the 19 operas, 17 are in CD format and two in DVD format (Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Handel’s Julius Caesar in Egypt). At first I wished that more of them were in DVD format, particularly since many of them involved ballet sequences, like Jean Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. However, both of these operas are videotaped live performances that produce mixed results. Giulio Caesar in Egitto is a generally well-done performance both visually and audibly. It has humor, inventive staging, and splendid acting. It also has pedestrian filming that sometimes leaves tops of instruments in shots and has questionable zooming techniques. Then there’s also the problem of stage noise, which – call me a purist – shouldn’t be disturbing in any opera if properly filmed. L’Orfeo is staged by the experimental choreographer Trisha Brown, who tends to annoy me. You may like to the androgynous anti-sensual costuming, or rave about her puzzling dance moves, but these innovations get under my epidermis. The recording also has a lack of balance between the vocal and instrumental dynamic ranges. It is the one disappointment in this otherwise marvelous set.

The CDs, on the other hand, have superior sound quality in most cases. This means Graun’s Cleopatra e Cesare, a nearly identical plot reworking of Handel’s Giulio Caesar in Egitto, may be less in musical strength, but is superior soundwise. Mid-seventeenth-century operas with virtually nonexistent drama, like John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, demand an adjustment period.

The first volume included is not the first recognized opera (L’Orfeo), but an early prototype from 1594: Orazio Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso. This volume is entitled Comedie Madrigalesque & Madigal Florentin and may be a vein of gold for an opera scholar. However, the singing is too undeveloped to be engaging for all opera aficionados.

Alessandro Scarlatti’s La Griselda has melodic recitatives and delicately expressive arias with inventive instrumentation. (A particularly passionate aria concludes with a 30-second harpsichord solo, a stunning touch.) One peculiar trait that Baroque operas share is that they sometimes have scenes between singers of nearly identical tessituras, like one between the characters Costanza and Roberto. Unless you’re reading along closely, it’s hard to tell who is singing. You may not care if you’re driving in the car and singing along.

Not all of the choices in this set are ideal. Le Malade Imaginaire is not a complete opera but rather incidental music to Molière’s famous play with operatic scenes. The opening segment has nothing to do with the plot; it is primarily a vehicle to flatter King Louis XIV (which is historically, but not artistically, interesting). There’s only one truly comic scene: Pantalone gets into a recitative dispute with a chorus who sings huffily to him in response. The final scene is apparently a satire, but the libretto provides only untranslated Latin, and I never got beyond “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” in high school.

In the 17th century, standards for Baroque opera had clearly not been set. In Lully’s French opera Atys, there is no delineation between recitative and aria; in fact, it has no true recitatives. Ornamental instrumentation occurs only in choral segments and during dance interludes. Otherwise it’s merely continuo in the arias between individuals and in solos. Musically, the voices have it.

There are great discoveries in this collection, like the premiere performance of Croesus by the German Reinhard Keiser, a composer so buried in obscurity that no portrait of him exists. In one of Elmera’s early arias she forms a tasty melisma on the word joy, “freude.” The opera features a daunting variety in arias with rapid tempo changes, often within a minute of each other. After the lovely aria “He awakens in my heart,” she immediately slips into another, “Enarmoured  Prince,” which is totally different in style, but with an equal measure of feeling. Every chance he gets, Keiser inserts a ballet: the ballet of the harlequins, the ballet of the Persian soldiers, each one unique.

Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes also features genuinely exciting arias, like “Vaste empire des mers.” It even has storm and wind sound effects. The middle segment is punctuated by a dramatic volcano sequence. By the time I heard the third ballet interlude, I was wishing for a DVD version. Then I found out that a filmed one indeed does exist, done by the same crew, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. I nearly sobbed when I realized the scope of this missed opportunity.

A pupil of Monteverdi, Francesco Cavalli was so accomplished that even Handel stole from him. His La Calisto sometimes subordinates instrumental sequences to the vocal pyrotechnics. It’s not unfair to say that some of his recitatives have a higher melodic structure that Handel’s. Most significantly, Cavalli used stunningly tuneful arias for his mortals, fauns, and deities. In one of Callisto’s arias, the music is light and airy and swift, as she sings in short choppy phrases about flying. You have to follow the tune closely; it’s gone in less than a minute, as are many of these brilliant, almost throwaway arias. Those of the Young Satyr are filled with vivid instrumentation. They are also comic and lewd, possibly rare in Late Baroque opera (at least in this collection). To top off the sylvan antics, we have this stage direction: “six bears come out the forest and dance to the music” in a stately chaconne. That alone would be worth a DVD release.

There are other operas in this set that space and time forbid me from tantalizing you with (Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, Campra’s Idoménée, Charpentier’s Médée). Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

One caveat: since most of this collection is on CDs, you probably want to follow along with the librettos (at least the first time). Don’t look for them in the four program note booklets. They are in PDF format on the last CD. Signs of the times. If your stereo equipment is not near your computer, upload the librettos to your iPad. No iPad? Buy this set and you’ll have a damned good excuse to get one.


Blow: Venus and Adonis
Campra: Idoménée
Cavalli: La Calisto
Charpentier, M-A: Médée, Le Malade imaginaire
Erlebach: Overture No. 4
Graun, C H: Cleopatra & Cesare
Handel: Rinaldo, Flavio, Giulio Cesare in Egitto (two DVDs)
Monteverdi:L’Orfeo (DVD), L’incoronazione di Poppea, Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
Purcell:Dido and Aeneas
Rameau:Les Indes Galantes
Rore: Ancor che co’l partire
Scarlatti, A:La Griselda
Schieferdecker:Premier Concert musicaux
Schürmann, G C: Suite Ludovicus Plus

—Peter Bates

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