Aaron Sheehan as Trajan, left, Gabrielle Philiponet as Plautine, Meggi Sweeny Smith as Venus and Andrew Trego as Mars are featured in performance of Rameau’s “Le Temple de la Gloire.”
BERKELEY — With its luminous score and frequent flights into choreographed dance sequences, “Le Temple de la Gloire” (The Temple of Glory) is a rare example of the large-scale works of the French Baroque era.
Music lovers might wait a lifetime for a revival of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1745 “ballet-héroique” (or opera-ballet). But thanks to a co-production by Cal Performances, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, the composer’s score is getting a top-notch production this weekend in Berkeley.
In the first of three performances Friday night at Zellerbach Hall, Philharmonia music director Nicholas McGegan led his orchestra, the Philharmonia Chorale and a large cast of singers, dancers and extras in this 18th century masterwork. The nearly three-hour opera sounded, well, glorious — as it suggested that satire, as a response to the politics of the day, is hardly a 21st century phenomenon.
Rameau, who was considered the greatest French composer of his era, and his unconventional librettist, Voltaire, built “The Temple of Glory” on the story of three men vying to enter the sacred temple at Mount Parnassus, a spot reserved for larger-than-life heroes. Those candidates are the hawkish Bélus, the dissipated Bacchus and the genuinely good Roman emperor Trajan.
The opera was written to celebrate King Louis XV’s victory in the Battle of Fontenoy, but the pairing of Rameau and Voltaire was an uneasy one. Not surprisingly, the libretto’s thinly veiled suggestion that kings earn the loyalty of their subjects with benevolence, not conquest, met with a tepid response. Its depiction of Bélus and Bacchus as bellicose, perpetually inebriated and possibly promiscuous didn’t sit well with the king.
Rameau hastily revised the opera in 1746, but McGegan is using the original, more pointed, version, from Rameau’s own manuscript, owned by UC Berkeley and housed in the university’s Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library. Today, the message comes across brilliantly.
Friday’s opening benefited from expert leadership by McGegan in the pit, and lavish stage direction and choreography by Catherine Turocy, whose New York Baroque Dance Company brought a vivacious corps of artists able to navigate the gigues, gavottes, forlanes and other French dance forms specific to the score.
Scott Blake’s set, augmented by Pierre Dupouey’s atmospheric lighting, turned the Zellerbach stage into an 18th century proscenium theater ornately framed in gold leaf. Projected backdrops suggested palace interiors and pastoral scenes, and the special effects were striking — in one scene, a group of muses danced downstage, while their projected images floated overhead.
McGegan conducted with his trademark verve and attention to detail, drawing forceful orchestral responses in the triumphant music and gentle, opulent sound in the pastoral scenes. The singers, decked out in Marie Anne Chiment’s rich-toned costumes, were magnificent. Baritone Philippe-Nicolas Martin was an emphatic Bélus, and soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery, who sang expressively in her extended first act aria as his scorned lover, Lydie, returned in the third act as the dazzling embodiment of Glory.
Meggi Sweeney Smith, foreground, plays both Venus, as shown here, and a giant ostrich in a ribald scene. (Frank Wing)
Introduced in a ribald episode dominated by a giant ostrich, the high-voiced haute-contre Artavazd Sargsyan made an agile Bacchus. Soprano Camille Ortiz-Lafont was an alluring Érigone. Aaron Sheehan sounded elegant as Trajan, who, once he wins the contest, dedicates the Temple of Glory to the public good. Gabrielle Philiponet was an insinuating Plautine. The large supporting cast played muses, demons, satyrs, kings, nymphs and shepherds, gods and warriors.
Rameau’s score scarcely resembles “modern” opera — there’s not a lot of extended action, and no great psychological depth. In one sense, this is an arcane piece, an artifact of a distant era.
Yet, in this production, “The Temple of Glory” came across with considerable impact. As characters sang about killing their enemies and poisoning the land, the opera began to resonate as oddly contemporary. When one insisted that “tyrants know no shame,” it might as well have been new.
Presenting Rameau’s “Le Temple de la Gloire”
When: 8 p.m. April 29, 3 p.m. April 30
Where: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley
Running time: 3 hours, with one intermission
Tickets: $30-$120; 510-642-9988; www.calperformances.org.