Skip to main content

Jean-Philippe Rameau by Jacques Aved

Le Temple de la Gloire
(The Temple of Glory)
April 28-30, 2017

Rameau’s Musical Feast

by Bruce Lamott

Will Rogers once quipped, “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute and it’ll change.” The same could be said about Rameau’s operas. Unlike the string-of-pearls alternation of arias and freely sung recitatives found in contemporary Italian opera seria (serious opera) such as those of Handel, Rameau’s opéra-ballets are an unpredictable variety show of dances, choruses, ensembles, and shorter arias interspersed with lyrical recitatives and audacious harmonic surprises.

Jacques-Martin Hotteterre

Rameau’s orchestral palette is full of variety as well, launching a French affinity for woodwind timbres that will continue from Berlioz to Debussy to Messiaen. His compositions attest to the serendipitous presence of Jacques-Martin Hotteterre and family, who for woodwind players are what Antonio Stradivari and his Cremona contemporaries are to strings. From the first notes of the Ouverture, two piccolos add striking brilliance to the animated harmonies of the oboes, trumpets, horns, and bassoons. This bombast abates briefly for the graceful minuet for flute duet and strings and two flutes that it frames.

Shepherds – Jean Antoine Watteau

Rameau’s orchestration works as musical set design, creating an atmospheric effect before a single note is sung. The Prologue begins in the cavern of Envy with a prominent duet of subterranean bassoons in dialogue with plummeting scales (tirate) in the violins. The bucolic scene for the éntree of the shepherds and shepherdesses in Act I is set by the sound of the musette, a kind of housebroken bagpipe frequently seen in paintings of the Adoration of the Shepherds or pastoral concerts (concerts champêtres). The omnipresence of woodwinds in the French orchestra sets it apart from its Italian contemporaries, in which woodwinds are an occasional additive element used for specific imagery such as birds or the hunt.


Another departure from Italian opera seria of the period is the French treatment of the dialogues and monologues (recitatif) connecting the concerted arias and dances. Unlike the free rapid-fire delivery in the rhythm and speed of the Italian language, French recitative is subject to a pulse and very attentive to the scansion of the poetic lines. Rameau was assiduous in his attention to Voltaire’s text both in the rhythm and meaning of the words. As the author of the century’s most important treatise on harmony, Rameau was particularly sensitive to the effect of chord progressions played by the harpsichord and cello (basso continuo) which underscore the structure and content of the text. Ever-present throughout Italian opera (hence the name continuo), the harpsichord is not included in Rameau’s orchestral accompaniments, and the absence of its ubiquitous sparkle focuses our attention on other instrumental colors. Rameau divides the viola section into two separate parts–a characteristic of French string scoring since Lully– In order to fill out the harmonies usually supplied by the keyboardist’s right hand,

Bacchanal Before a Statue, by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

Choruses and ensembles, rarely found in opera seria,  abound in this opera. As with French grand opera of the 19th century, there is a large role for an independent choral ensemble which changes characters with the shifting scenarios of the three acts; their various roles–demons, Muses, shepherds and shepherdesses, bacchantes, priests and priestesses, and Romans–require changes in vocal timbre as well as personality. As a major figure of the Enlightenment’s classical humanism, Voltaire was well-versed in Greek drama, and at times the chorus takes on the role of the classical Greek chorus, reflecting the message rather than portraying a role.

Composers of Italian opera seria such as Handel, Vivaldi, or Alessandro Scarlatti strung arias together on a storyline set up by recitative. Aria texts were most often generic expressions of affect–vengeance, joy, ambition, sorrow–absent content specific to the particular plotline. There was a rigid hierarchy of roles, and leading characters were revealed through a series of contrasting arias in a pageant of passions. Audience demand for virtuosic display created the two-steps-forward-one-step-back form of the da capo aria, in which the first half of the aria is repeated from the top (da capo) as a vehicle for improvised ornamentation and cadenzas. Dramatic convention then dictated that the singer exit the stage, allowing for applause and even encores. Word and phrase repetitions (“Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice greatly”) accommodated elaborate extensions for the purpose of vocalism and formal structure.

Allegory a la nomination

Not so the French. One of the hallmarks of French Baroque musical theater is the seamless transition between recitative, solo aria, and ensembles of duets, trios, and chorus. Rameau sets Voltaire’s text with careful attention to the rhythmic scansion and rhyme of the libretto reflected in the phrasing, pauses, and cadences of each line. Voltaire’s text is full of grandeur and serious philosophic thought. In the Preface to Le temple, he states his intention to replace the vapid eroticism with something more serious and moralistic accompanied by grandiose spectacle;  the occasion of a military victory–as opposed to a wedding–gave him license. Though the text itself is much more prolific than its Italian contemporaries, it passes with great dispatch absent repetitions and virtuosic extensions. Arias segué seamlessly from the recitatives without lengthy orchestral introductions, and their content relates directly to the dramatic situation at hand.

This scrupulous respect for the poetry is further reflected in the uniquely French approach to vocal and instrumental ornamentation called agréments. Unlike the bravura roulades and flights of virtuosic passagework of the Italians, these agréments are concise and fleeting emphases of accented syllables, expressive harmonies, and rhythmic stresses using brief and frequent trills, appoggiaturas (a stepwise “leaning” into dissonance followed by its resolution), and ports de voix, a gentle sliding into a note followed by a brief oscillation. The frequent use of these agréments also make the melodic lines more pliable by cushioning large leaps and tapering phrase endings.


The diverse roles in Le Temple were cast from the resident ensemble of the Académie Royale de Musique, founded by Louis XIV and devoted to the exclusive performance of French opera. It developed under the strict control of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87), whose works continued to performed alongside those of Rameau and Gluck a century later. This respect for the music of previous generations was rare, as opera companies generally discarded works that were not stylistically au courant. The five singers who created the principal roles were the leading artists in this resident company numbering about fifteen singers. Three of the five sang dual roles: Marie-Jeanne Fesch– known to audiences as Mlle. Chevalier–was the premier sujet (prima donna) of the company. As Lydia, she expressed the nobility and pathos for which she was famous, but the role of Plautine gave her the opportunity to show a tender and somewhat amorous side as well. Marie Fel, soon to become a favorite of Rameau,  sang the contrasting roles of Érigone and la Gloire, demonstrating both her strengths in comedic acting as well as brilliant vocalism. Pierre Jélyotte (Apollon and Trajan), known for his supple, sonorous tenor, was also described as “a unique singer, but one without acting skills or looks.” Bacchus was sung by François Poirier, noted for his extensive high tenor (or countertenor) range, called haute contre–a voice preferred by the French over the penchant for mezzo-soprano castratos found in Italian opera seria. The alto part in the choruses is also labeled haut-contre, giving it the scoring of soprano and three-part male chorus (haute-contre, tenor, bass) that continued into the nineteenth century.

King Louis XV of France by H. Rigaud 1730

The French penchant for dance is reflected in the nomenclature of this opera as an opera-ballet, or ballet héroique. The theatrical dances which developed at the court of Louis XIV abound in this work: passepied, gigue, entrée, forlane, gavotte, loure, and, as customary, a concluding passacaille. The character of each dance type reflects the personality of the roles of the dancers, such as the pastoral gigue for the shepherds and shepherdesses, the lusty forlane for the bacchantes, and in the final scene, a series of entrées accompanying the entrances of Roman nobility, shepherds, soldiers, and youths–each appropriate to its social class.

It’s quite possible that the engaging charm, lyricism, and spectacle of this operatic rarity will prompt the question: Why don’t we see these works performed more often? Though performances of French Baroque opera are becoming somewhat more frequent, Rameau’s operas have yet to be staged by the major opera companies in America. While Handel’s Italian operas appear now with some regularity, they were created with economy in mind; Handel was an impresario subject to the vagaries of ticket sales and audience taste, and expenditures took their toll on his profit margin. Rameau and Voltaire, on the other hand, had the deep pockets of the Bourbon monarchy at their disposal. Such a large cast, dance troupe, large (in Baroque terms) orchestra, lavish spectacle, and uncertain box-office would certainly give modern producers pause. But beyond that lies another challenge: that of historically informed performance. French opera may be the last frontier in Baroque performance practices, requiring a specialized knowledge of period choreography, theatrical practice, and instrumental technique, not to mention a roster of singers who are fluent in the musical language of French declamation and Baroque vocalism. This performance brings these elements together in an unprecedented collaboration in order to give you a rare glimpse of entertainment fit for a king.