Rameau: Zoroastre

Album cover art for upc 809274318220
Label: ERATO
Catalog: 092743182
Format: CD

While Freemasonry's secrecy has always aroused distrust, its enlightened principles and belief in virtue, liberty, fraternity, and equality have attracted large numbers of intellectuals and artists; one of its most famous adherents was Mozart. However, his opera The Magic Flute was not the first to be inspired by its teachings but was preceded in 1749 by Rameau's Zoroastre. Its initial reception was so cool that Rameau and his librettist, Louis de Cahusac (a prominent Mason) undertook extensive revisions. The new version was produced--by coincidence or fate?--in 1756, the year of Mozart's birth, and became a great success. The opera is based on the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, enlightenment and ignorance, personified by Zoroastre, the Persian religious reformer, and Abramane, an ambitious sorcerer, servant of the Evil Spirit. The human element (strengthened in the second version) is represented by two princesses, rivals for the Bactrian throne and Zoroastre's love; since one of them is in league with Abramane, the outcome is not in doubt. As in the Magic Flute, the music's the thing, and it is great, creating character, atmosphere and contrast, painting almost visible images of disasters, ceremonies, and celebrations. The vocal writing is extremely difficult, florid, wide in tonal and expressive range; the tenor and soprano parts lie extremely high, the basses' extremely low. Secco and accompanied recitatives melt into each other and into meltingly beautiful lyrical and stirringly dramatic arias and ensembles. But perhaps it is the choruses, underlining, supporting, and commenting on the action, and the orchestral sections, including many wonderful ballets, that are most impressive. Rameau uses the instruments to evoke light and shade, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, juxtaposing and combining winds and strings for utmost color and contrast, and the players and choristers do full justice to his demands. Among the soloists, the sopranos' often unvibrated tone tends to get shrill; the men are all superb; Padmore stands out in the punishingly difficult role of Zoroastre.

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