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Lindsay Kemp
Gramophone, March 2008

An overdue showcase for a stalwart on the French Baroque opera scene

Although it does not say so on the cover, this recital of arias and scenes for haute-contre is a tribute to the singer Pierre de Jélyotte, whose influential career on the Parisian stage coincided with that of Rameau. At the same time it is an overdue showcase for the more modern talents of Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, stalwart of many a French Baroque opera production over the past two decades, but celebrated in particular for his comic portrayal of plug-ugly nymph Platée. Excerpts from Platée open and close the disc but in between comes more serious stuff, including two of Rameau’s finest tragic monologues in “Séjour de l’eternelle paix” from Castor et Pollux and the great “Lieux funestes” from Dardanus. And while those are relatively well known to Rameau fans, it is good also to have music from rarely heard works such as La Guirlande and Les fêtes de I’Hymen et de l’Amour.

The sureness of Rameau’s operatic touch needs no advertising here—though should doubt remain, the delightful orchestral depiction of daybreak which forms the backdrop to Neptune’s musings in Naï is proof enough on its own. Fouchécourt is no stranger either, and once again he shows his judicious blend of stylistic awareness and dramatic flair. If he does not quite captivate in the way he does onstage, there is still plenty to admire in his clarity and profound feeling for the music’s emotional ebb and flow, and while his voice may not always have its former ease, that is not really the point. A revealing disc nevertheless—and with a delicious surprise ending.

Margarida Mota-Bull
MusicWeb International, January 2008

Jean Philippe Rameau was not only the outstanding European musical theorist of his era but also France’s leading 18th century composer. To most music-lovers nowadays he may be best known for his keyboard and chamber works, as well as for being the author of the Traité de l’harmonie, which in 1722 made his name and had great musical impact. However his finest compositions are in dramatic music and include some of the best, most powerful operas of the period between Monteverdi and the appearance of Mozart. As such, this CD is a rather welcome work, and as indicated by its title Operatic Arias, it contains highlights from some of the composer’s most beautiful and imaginative operas.

The work is also called The Artistry of Jélyotte and this is not a coincidence. Pierre de Jélyotte (1713–1797) was a great French opera singer. He possessed a powerful and extremely flexible voice, with a very wide range. His was a tenor’s voice known in French as haute-contre. This is a very high type of tenor voice, popular in 18th century France, which can be similar to the one designated by the English term counter-tenor. There is a difference: haute-contres do not make use of falsetto at the top of his range.

Rameau’s and Jélyotte’s, names are intimately linked, as the latter sang the most important roles in thirteen of the sixteen operas by Rameau, produced during the time the singer was at the Paris Opéra (1733–1755). There are many who attribute the great success of Rameau’s operas to the artistry of Jélyotte, not least one of his librettists, Jean-Louis de Cahusac, who is reputed to have said ‘The art [Rameau’s art] owes its great progress to them [Jélyotte and his colleague the soprano Marie Fell], for without a doubt it is to the possibilities that Mr Rameau saw in their brilliant, flexible voices that opera owes its remarkable pieces with which this illustrious composer has enriched French singing.

Bearing all this in mind, one is to have great expectations of this recording and I am happy to say that it does not disappoint. The chosen pieces are among Rameau’s best, most imaginative works, some of which were rather innovative, as was the case with Platée, a lyrical comedy, the first of its time, for until then comedy had traditionally played little or no part in French opera.

From beginning to end this CD is a thing of beauty. The Opera Lafayette Orchestra, based in the United States and not in France, as the name might suggest, expertly led by its conductor and artistic director Ryan Brown, gives a harmonious, luminous and touchingly lyrical performance of Rameau’s operas. This is particularly true of the extracts from Platée and Dardanus, especially in the final piece, the joyful, light aria from Platée’s Prologue.

Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, the haute-contre tenor that steps into Jélyotte’s shoes, has his name and success also closely linked with the music of Rameau. His rare and beautiful voice does justice to his predecessor, displaying a clear, pure vocal line, with a fresh crystalline sound in its highest range. While Fouchécourt does not appear to possess the wide range that was a characteristic of Jélyotte—his voice fades a little in the lower range and has a slightly monotone ring to it, lacking flexibility. He delights the ear with a boyish, almost angelic quality of sound that pleases and makes one think that if angels existed and were able to sing, they would probably sound like this.

Operatic Arias from Rameau’s best operas is a wonderful, well conceived collection, a technically accomplished recording, bringing a welcome revival of Rameau’s dramatic music. A fresh touch is brought to a composer who nowadays is unjustly neglected and an excellent insight into a rare type of voice.

The booklet accompanying the CD is also worth mentioning, as it is unusually well written, with a lot of detail and informative notes about the composer and all the artists. This provides a valuable and interesting read for the listener less familiar with the music of the baroque period in general and Rameau’s operas in particular.

George Loomis
Opera, January 2008
Here is another welcome solo disc celebrating the repertoire of a great singer from the past. The art of the haute contre Pierre de Jélyotte (1713–97) offered Jean-Paul Fouchécourt much to choose from, since he created roles in 13 of the 16 Rameau operas that were premiered at the Paris Opéra during his years of activity there, 1733–55. A 1751 entry in the Encyclopédie discussing Jélyotte together with his frequent stage partner, the soprano Marie Fel, heralded their voices as ‘flexibles et brilliants’ and disdained the ‘feeble cries’ of those ‘outraged at seeing some of the difficult and brilliant traits of the Italians adapted to a language not thought susceptible to them’. ‘Brilliant is not an adjective that especially fits Fouchécourt’s soft-grained tenor, but he superbly captures other qualities noted by the author (Louise de Cahusac) in Jélyotte’s singing, ‘le goût, la précision, l’expression et la légèrete du chant’. Fouchécourt sings so expertly that he nearly always sounds convincing in the music. The disc offers a representative sample of Rameau’s writing tenor, drawing on the tragédies lyriques as well as the lighter, pastoral-type pieces known as ballets. But, as with modern revivals of Rameau, the work most prominent is the anomalous comedy Platée, a role in which Fouchécourt has had success on stage. Compared to its delightful ariettes and the zany scene in which Jupiter appears before the gullible nymph Platée in various animal guises, some of the serious numbers might seem a little stilted, a condition that would to some extent be alleviated by a more robust voice. But they are the heart of the operatic Rameau and repay one’s attention. Take Dardanus’s prison scene, sung here as a real expression of despair, or the love songs of Zoroastre and Zaïs, different in character yet here equally touching or Neptune’s florid ariette (Naïs) designed to temper the north winds; dispatched by Fouchécourt with panache. The period instrument orchestra of the Washington-based Opera Lafayette, which in its decade-long existence has done so much to further the cause of 18th-century French opera, provides exemplary support under Ryan Brown, with the orchestra making delightful contribution on its own in the brief symphonies that are integral to the fabric of the these operas.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, December 2007

Fouchécourt may have lost something in tonal quality but this is more than compensated for by his deep insight. This disc should be of interest to anyone the least interested in baroque opera.

Jean-Philippe Rameau was granted a long life: he was born two years before Bach and Handel and survived them both, Handel by five years. He spent his early career as organist and his compositions were mostly for keyboard instruments, primarily harpsichord. Not until he was fifty did he start writing operas, his first success being Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733. The works he wrote during the next twenty years are regarded as the cream of French Baroque opera, Castor et Pollux (1737, revised 1754) possibly his masterwork. His music became unfashionable towards the end of his life but in our time, from the 1960s, many of them have been revived and recorded. I remember hearing a performance of Castor et Pollux on Swedish Radio in the early 1970s, conducted by Harnoncourt, who later recorded the work with the same forces in Stockholm with Gerard Souzay as Pollux. That recording that still ranks high in the Rameau stakes.

On this disc the renowned French haute-contre Jean-Paul Fouchécourt sings a number of arias from eight of Rameau’s stage-works, which can be divided in tragedies lyriques, comedies lyriques and comedies-ballets. The term ‘haute-contre’ should not be confused with ‘counter-tenor’. The latter is a man who sings falsetto in the contralto range while the haute-contre is a high tenor who sings in his natural voice from e to c’.

The arias on this disc have been chosen to represent Fouchécourt’s great predecessor Pierre de Jélyotte (1713–1797) who sang at the Paris Opéra from 1733 to his retirement in 1755, where he performed 46 characters in 41 works. One of his first assignments was two characters at the premiere of Rameau’s first opera Hippolyte et Aricie and he was given roles in thirteen of the sixteen stage works that Rameau mounted during this period. Nobody knows what he sounded like but contemporary reports say that it was a powerful and supple voice with a wide range. What did ‘powerful’ mean in those days? Certainly not the same thing as today, where powerful means a voice that can ride a Wagnerian orchestra or challenge Verdi’s Aida trumpets. Knowing the music Rameau wrote for him and the orchestral forces he had to compete with one can probably conclude that in today’s terminology it was a lyric voice and that Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is a worthy stand-in for him. Beauty, flexibility and virtuosity were more important components in a singer’s armoury during the 18th century than sheer force.

Hearing Fouchécourt almost twenty years ago I remember him as a very light voiced singer, agile and with beautiful tone. When he recorded Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice in the 1774 Paris version for Naxos five years ago with the same orchestra and conductor (see review) his was still a marvellously handsome voice, in my view an ideal instrument for the part. Four years later, when this disc was recorded, his technical accomplishment is still without reproach, his runs are exemplary and grace notes are applied with the utmost elegance. His soft singing is also very attractive but it seems that he has lost something of the suppleness of tone. It has hardened and he has to work harder than before with a slight widening of vibrato on sustained notes at forte. Today he sounds more like a character tenor, which isn’t as negative as it might seem. This is namely one of the most expressive baroque recitals I have come across. He makes the words tell and he colours the voice accordingly to good theatrical effect. Conveying a character or a situation with vocal means alone is a hard task for any singer or actor but Fouchécourt’s singing has ‘face’.

Ryan Brown and his Opera Lafayette also contribute to make this a highly desirable disc. Besides the aforementioned Orphée he also made a successful recording of Sacchini’s Oedipe some time ago (see review) and since several of the works here are ballets he has rich opportunities to let the orchestra shine—which it does with rhythmic flair, precision and elegance and also in the elegiac numbers he keeps the music alive. There are some spectacular sound effects in Platée (tr. 3, near the end) where the stage instruction says: “…suddenly a great clap of thunder is heard. A shower of fire falls from heaven. Platée runs about the stage in great fright.” If you happen to nod during this long scene—which to be sure seems improbable—you will certainly be woken up!

Musically this is a string of pearls of wonderful scenes with dances and arias, joyful, dramatic, elegiac, beautiful. For a taster of Fouchécourt’s accomplishment try the little arietta from Platée—Quittez nymphes, quittez (tr. 2), where his expertise in coloratura as well as his expressive colouring of the voice are to the fore. Also lend an ear to the elegiac aria from Castor et Pollux (tr. 6) and Neptune’s beautiful aria from Naïs (tr. 12): Cessez de ravager la terre, which has less to do with topical problems like global heating and devastation of the rain-forests than the eternal plague of war.

Ideally one could have wished that this disc had been recorded a couple of years earlier when Fouchécourt’s voice was in even better shape but his deep insight compensates for what loss of tonal quality there is.

Full marks to Naxos for providing not only full texts and translations but also an introduction to each scene with some historical notes and then placing the aria in context.

This disc should be of interest to anyone the least interested in baroque opera.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2007

The haute-contre came to prominence in 18th century France—the production of the voice very different to the English counter-tenor—and could be required to sing as a conventional tenor while offering the composer two or three notes higher than the conventional top of the tenor range. It was a particularly fine exponent of this art, Pierre de Jolyotte, that encouraged Rameau to write such roles when at the age of 22 Jolyotte amazed the audience at the premiere of Les Indes galantes. He was to remain at the Paris Opera for a further twenty years before he went into semi-retirement ‘amusing’ court audiences with his prodigious technique. Today his role has been filled by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt who specializes in singing haute-contre in operas from the Baroque era, while equally enjoying a major career as an opera and concert tenor in the 19th and 20th century repertoire. He has become particularly associated with Rameau’s opera, Platée, and here sings arias from eight other Rameau operas. Though there are fast florid passages—the Nais excerpt (track 7) a fine example, don’t expect a disc packed with vocal fireworks, Rameau was not primarily noted for such roles. These arias are of lyric quality, using the high voice with discretion, and concentrating on vocal beauty. Fouchécourt for his part is a lyric singer with impeccable intonation and diction, and irrespective of that vext question of authenticity, his voice falls pleasantly on the ear. He is accompanied in period style by the orchestra of Opera Lafayette, a company that has become one of North America’s most highly respected performers of Baroque opera. Some bassoon passages could have benefited from editorial patching, but the engineers obtained a good balance between performers, and thankfully Naxos has broken with tradition by supplying booklet with French texts and English translations.

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