By Robert Croan
Welcome to Paris in the 1730s, during the reign of Louis XV.
To open its 2023-24 season, Seraphic Fire, directed by Patrick Dupré Quigley, presented two rarely heard works from the period — a sacred motet followed by extracts from an opera, each evoking the alleged splendors of the French court while providing a tantalizing glimpse into music that was both typical and ahead of its time.
The major work was Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, criticized in its own time for being too overtly emotional and dissonant in its harmonies — to the extent that two decades later, Rameau revised the work to make it more palatable and saleable to the Parisian public. Quigley used the original 1737 version, premiered in the theater of the Palais-Royal and reconstructed from early sources by P. Wesley Roy, Seraphic Fire’s conducting fellow from the University of Miami.
For the current performance (seen Saturday night at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale), Roy trimmed the opera’s five acts (and approximately five hours) to 40 minutes of music, illuminating the story line while emphasizing the better-known solo scenes and maximizing the choral numbers along with instrumental dances. This was tailored to Seraphic Fire’s superb contingent of 13 voices, with a 17-piece orchestra that emulated many of the original instruments. In a brief spoken commentary, Quigley let it be known that with sufficient contributions from the audience and elsewhere, it might be possible to present the entire opera sometime in the future.
In the mid-18th century, there was an artistic rivalry that incongruently pitted French serious opera against the visiting Italian comic opera troupes — a phenomenon that came to be known as the War of the Buffoons. In a nutshell, the Italian operas concentrated on vocal virtuosity, while the French favored clarity of the words, alongside frequent choral commentary and balletic diversions. Rameau, who had published an iconic treatise on harmony in 1722, was also ahead of his time in his colorful orchestration. A few operas later — in his Zoroastre — he would introduce a new and still controversial wind instrument: the clarinet.
Castor et Pollux tells the ancient Greek myth of two twins: one mortal, the other a god. They’re rivals for the love of the Princess Telaire, who prefers the human brother, Castor. When Castor is killed in battle, the twins’ father Jupiter orders Pollux to rescue Castor from the underworld. The conclusion has both brothers enjoying godhood, elevated to the night sky as the constellation Gemini — the twins of the Zodiac.
The work’s original prologue, performed before intermission, is a mini-opera in itself, unrelated to the story, and was omitted in Rameau’s later version. The text celebrated the then timely end of the War of the Polish Succession, with the gods Minerva (rich-toned soprano Nola Richardson), Eros (tenor James Reese) and Venus (soprano Molly Quinn) convincing the war-god Mars (bass Stephen Eddy) to end the combat.
In the opera proper, the full vocal ensemble took precedence over individual soloists. The six choral segments included were rendered with precision, clear French enunciation and a broad range of shading, from the Scene I lament to the menacing chorus of demons at the gates of the underworld. Among the principals, Jonathan Woody’s dark bass was the most impressive voice. His virile Pollux was well complemented by the sweet-toned tenor of Aaron Cates’s Castor, who made much of the brief but melodious Act 4 arioso, “Séjour de l’éternelle paix.”
Rebecca Myers’ white, vibrato-less tone, just a little off in the high range, is more of an acquired taste, but she phrased with high expression in Telaire’s solo scene, “Tristes apprêts” — a segment singled out for special praise in the 19th century by composer Hector Berlioz. The instrumental ensemble was no less virtuosic than the vocal contingent, with crisp, colorful playing and some delightful solos from the flute and oboe. The overture to Castor et Pollux was a particular pleasure.
The evening opened with a lesser, though intermittently engaging, sacred work by Rameau’s younger contemporary, Jean-Joseph de Mondonville: a multi-movement “grand motet” on the psalm text Dominus regnavit. Better known as a violinist and composer of sonatas for stringed instruments, Mondonville wrote sacred music with an operatic bent, along with effective and dramatic choral writing.
The most interesting movement of the work was the choral-instrumental setting of the verse, “Elevaverunt fluminia,” in which the Seraphic performers made the most of the composer’s quasi-realistic emulation of the sounds of floods and giant waves.