Rameau is always worth seeing as well as hearing, even in a piece as whacky as this. [This is our free drawing for October!]

RAMEAU: Dardanus (complete opera), Blu-ray (2016)

Performers: Reinoud Van Mechelen (Dardanus)/ Gaëlle Arquez (Iphise)/ Karina Gauvin (Venus)/ Florian Sempey (Anténor)/ Nahuel Di Pierro (Teucer, Isménor)/ Katherine Watson (Un Songe/ Amour)/ Etienne Bazola (Berger)/ Virgile Ancely (Un Songe)/ Guillaume Gutiérrez (Un Songe)/ Ensemble Pygmalion/ Raphaël Pichon
Producer: Michel Fau
Studio: Harmonia mundi/PIAS 9859051.52 2015
Video: 16:9 HD 1080i fir 16:9
Audio: PCM stereo 2.0, DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: German, English, French
No region code
Length: 3 hr. 12 min. 24 sec.
Bonus: Dardanus: Behind the Scene (Blu-ray only), 20 min.
Rating: ****

Dardanus is opera number six out of the composer’s 30-odd creations in the genre. The court of Louis XV was a gaudy, irascible time for spectacular productions—the kitsch present in this age is something that many directors have attempted to avoid or at least soften. Not here. This production embraces it as a legitimate and even beautiful expression of style that so marked the transitional time between Rameau and Lully, rivals at the time, but more exacerbated by their followers. In fact, after the 1739 initial production only lasted for 28 performances—and that largely because of the Rameau collective that was pushing it—the composer demonstrated his attachment to it by doing an extensive revision. The idea of the “real” was creeping into opera at that time in France, and any evidences of the supernatural were deemed to need in-depth justification and careful working so as to not make the plot seem ridiculous. Dardanus is hardly an opera that meets what we would today call a realistic or even a believable narrative.

The plot is essentially this (borrowed from Wikipedia since it sums it up so well): “Dardanus is at war with King Teucer, who has promised to marry his daughter Iphise to King Anténor. Dardanus and Iphise meet, through the intervention of the magician Isménor, and fall in love. Dardanus attacks a monster ravaging Teucer’s kingdom, saving the life of Anténor who is attempting, unsuccessfully, to kill it. Teucer and Dardanus make peace, the latter marrying Iphise.”

In actuality the opera is more complex than even this—the problems start when trying to hear all three hours on a “high” level instead of simply immersing oneself in the work scene by scene. Being French, and being Rameau, there are tons of dance numbers, lots of choruses, arias galore, and little sense to this particular libretto, which is the reason for his 1744 changes! It is an extraordinarily colorful piece from the scenic and musical standpoints, and the music is fabulous! It should be noted that this is supposedly the 1739 version, but like most of the recordings today, it borrows from the inferior 1744 makeover mainly to incorporate what is known as the “prison” scene, a worthy entry indeed, and a few other additions. This would certainly be in the spirit of the composer himself, more concerned about a popular and acceptable version—and one that would make money—than any altruistic reasons. Wagner was not yet born.

The production standards are extremely high, with a dedication to the time period that Rameau lived and no sense of having to modernize anything. Yet, modern technology is used unapologetically to make this happen. The singers are terrific, with particular kudos to the Venus of Karina Gauvin and the spectacular Gaëlle Arquez (playing Iphise). Dardanus himself cannot be overlooked, ably portrayed by haute-contre (but not counter-tenor) Reinoud Van Mechelen. Former counter-tenor turned excellent conductor Raphaël Pichon leads the sprightly and dedicated Ensemble Pygmalion in a manic reading of great sensitivity—and again, being Rameau, there is a lot of mania in the orchestral score. The video is absolutely top-notch, especially in Blu-ray.

This work needs to be approached somewhat differently than something like Le Nozze, but the rewards are great!

—Steven Ritter