Arts & Events

OPERA REVIEW: Philharmonia Baroque Stages Rameau-Voltaire’s Le Temple de la Gloire

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday May 07, 2017 - 02:25:00 PM

Imagine the leading French composer of the mid-18th century, Jean-Philippe Rameau, combining forces with the period’s leading French writer and thinker, Voltaire, in an opera intended to provide for King Louis XV of France an allegorical object lesson in what it takes to be a great ruler. Then imagine that this opera was first staged not in an opera house or a palace but rather in a temporary theatre in the stables, La Grande Écurie, at Versailles in 1745. To top it off, imagine that the original score of this 1745 premiere was lost for centuries and then discovered in UC Berkeley’s Hargrove Music Library. Finally, imagine that Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale would combine forces with the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles and with New York Baroque Dance Company to mount a fully staged production of this opera in Berkeley. What you get staggers the imagination, as we saw when the opera Le Temple de la Gloire opened on Friday evening, April 28, for three performances April 28-30, at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.  

Philharmonia Baroque’s Music Director, Nicholas McGegan, learned of the existence of the original score back in the 1980s from Victor Gavenda, then a Ph.D. student at Cal Berkeley; and after studying the score McGegan led the PBO in recording several movements from Le Temple de la Gloire for a Harmonia Mundi CD released in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, McGegan nursed the hope he might someday produce a fully staged version of this opera-ballet by Rameau. Finally, as McGegan says, “the planets aligned.” Cal Performances got behind this project, and McGegan drew on his network of contacts to involve the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles and its musicologist Julien Dubruque, who was preparing for publication a newly reconstructed score based on the version found in UC Berkeley’s Hargrove Music Library. McGegan also involved the participation of Catherine Turocy a leading scholar and choreographer of French Baroque dance, who agreed to direct the production of Le Temple de la Gloire and design its authentic period choreography.  

Thus, with a cast comprised of 90% French singers who had worked with Benoit Dratwicki at the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, McGegan was able to put on stage a remarkably authentic production of how this opera-ballet would have looked and sounded to French audiences at the time of its 1745 premiere. In this collective project, Set Designer Scott Blake, Costume Designer Marie Anne Chiment, and Lighting Designer Pierre Depouey all played their part in making this as authentic a French Baroque opera-ballet as one could imagine.  

The results were spectacular. Commissioned to write a libretto celebrating the French military victory over Dutch, British, and Hanoverian troops at Fontenoy in 1745, Voltaire dared to write not a paean of praise to King Louis XV for leading his troops in a successful battle, but rather an encomium on what it takes to be a great ruler. The plot of Le Temple de la Gloire is unconventional, to say the least. Voltaire’s libretto offers three different heroes who seek to gain entry to a mythical Temple of Glory guarded by Apollo and various muses. There is a lively Prologue, full of rich orchestration involving bassoons and a musette or bagpipe. Set in the cavern of Envy, an allegorical role sung by baritone Marc Lebonnette, the Prologue pits Envy against Apollo, sung by countertenor Aaron Sheehan. Caroline Copeland, principal dancer with New York Baroque Dance Company, performed the role of a Priestess of Apollo. The Philharmonia Chorale led by Bruce Lamott sang the role of Demons who follow Envy and various Muses and demi-gods who follow Apollo.  

In Act I, the first hero, one Bélus, sung by baritone Philippe-Nicolas Martin, asserts his claim for entry into the Temple of Glory by boasting crudely of his military prowess. Lydie, sung by soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery, and Arsine, sung by soprano Gabrielle Philipont, offer courtly support. However, Bélus is a brutish character who preens himself on nothing but his military victories. Bélus is denied entry to the Temple of Glory by Apollo, sung by Aaron Sheehan. 

Act II presents the second applicant to the Temple of Glory, Bacchus, the legendary purveyor of wine and abandon. While his prowess is acknowledged and his power to involve women Bacchantes in his cult of drunken abandon is emphasized, Bacchus too fails to win entry. Catherine Turocy’s choreography emphasizes the debauchery of Bacchus’s candidacy for the Temple of Glory. Artavazd Sargsayan sang the role of Bacchus with comic aplomb, accompanied by a quizzical ostrich. When I questioned Director Catherine Turocy about the ostrich, she replied that Bacchus is traditionally accompanied by a tiger or leopard, but since they didn’t have either of these cats they chose an ostrich. A principal Bacchante is lustily portrayed by soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery. Baritone Marc Labonnette sings the role of The Grand Priest of Glory. One interesting detail of the Bacchus episode in Le Temple de la Gloire involves a love intrigue between Bacchus and Erigone, sung by soprano Camille Ortiz-Lafont. In ancient Greek legends, Erigone was the daughter of the peasant Ikarios who was taught by Dionysos/Bacchus the secrets of wine-making, which Ikarios shared with his countrymen, after which the nearby villagers unwisely over-indulged in wine, suffered the drunken consequences, became angry, and killed Ikarios. His daughter, Erigone, discovered her father’s corpse and hanged herself in grief. (This back-story is not acknowledged at all in Voltaire’s libretto for Le Temple de la Gloire, but I find it interesting that even a distorted shred of this ancient legend is present in Voltaire’s libretto, which turns Erigone into a favored follower of Bacchus.) 

Act III of Le Temple de la Gloire focuses on the Roman hero Trajan, who wins a military campaign against five Parthian generals. Instead of exulting in his military prowess and cruelly mistreating his captives, Trajan magnanimously frees the five Parthian generals. Moreover, Trajan, sung by countertenor Aaron Sheehan, insists on making the Temple of Glory a bastion of inclusivity for “each rank, each sex, each age.” Trajan also dedicates his acceptance into the Temple of Glory to his beloved fiancée Plautine, sung by Gabrielle Philiponet. Plautine, for her part, loyally accepts the duty Trajan observes in leading his Roman people, even though it means they must delay their union. Venus herself, majestically sung by soprano Meggi Sweeney Smith, adds her benediction to Trajan for his noble conduct as ruler. Trajan is accepted into the Temple of Glory, and the opera-ballet concludes with lengthy orchestral and choral celebrations, including a final Passacaille.  

Supposedly, after the premiere of Le Temple de la Gloire, its librettist, Voltaire, who dared to offer a moral lesson to his monarch, asked King Louis XV, “Is Trajan happy?” Louis XV was not pleased, and replied to Voltaire with only silence and an icy stare. Rulers, it seems, do not like to be told how they should govern.