Rameau: Zoroastre

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Rameau
LABELS: Erato
WORKS: Zoroastre
PERFORMER: Mark Padmore, Nathan Berg, Gaëlle Méchaly, Anna Maria Panzarella; Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
CATALOGUE NO: 0927-43182-2
It is 20 years since Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande recorded Rameau’s fourth tragédie, Zoroastre, in its revised version. Now comes William Christie’s more stylistically even-flowing performance of the same version, which he gave at the 1998 BBC Proms. Rameau’s collaboration with his librettist Louis de Cahusac first reached the stage in 1749, but its theme, derived from the pre-Christian Persian doctrinal system of Zoroastrianism – the struggle between Good and Evil – was perhaps too much for Parisian audiences, who received the opera coolly. Thus for a revival of the piece in 1756, composer and librettist made far-reaching changes. Three of the five acts (II, III and V) were rewritten, the love element was strengthened and the Zoroastrian theme to some extent diluted. Of greater interest to Rameau enthusiasts, though, is the provision by the septuagenarian composer of some new music for the revival.

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Christie has brought together a characteristically fine cast, with Mark Padmore in the title role. His singing is evenly controlled, lyrical and more comfortably sustained in the highest register than that of John Elwes in the earlier recording. Nathan Berg and Éric Martin-Bonnet, representing Darkness and Light respectively, bring colour and character to the central conflict. The clear and youthful-sounding voice of Gaëlle Méchaly is well-suited to the role of princess Amélite, who eventually marries Zoroastre, while Anna Maria Panzarella as Érinice introduces a sharp edge to her interpretation. Though the warmer singing of Mieke van der Sluis in the older recording makes greater appeal, the casting was less appropriate.

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While it would be of great interest to have a recording of Rameau’s first version of Zoroastre, Christie makes out a strong case for opting for the second. Rhythms, counterpoint, textural clarity and tonal colour reveal some of the distinctive and innovative strengths of a composer whose art seldom disappoints.