Glories of the French Baroque

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Published: 9th October, 2017

When the National Academy of Music’s artistic director, Nick Deutsch was interviewed for “The good life” segment in a recent edition of The Age, he boasted (justifiably) of a talent-spotting prowess that resulted in booking American soprano Brenda Rae just before her career exploded and she became unaffordable. The choice of program also had elements of Deutsch’s penchant for fine culinary fare. It was almost a Rameau dégustation, with choice offerings from six of his operas: Les Paladins, Castor et Pollux, Platée, Zoroastre, Les Boréades and Les Indes Galantes.

It was fortunate that Jean-Philippe Rameau was relatively long-lived since it was not until 1733 that he embarked on a career as an opera composer. From the age of 49 he dedicated himself almost exclusively to opera, writing at least 26 works for the stage. Despite a resurgence of interest in the 1970s, we rarely hear live performances of Rameau’s operas in Melbourne (Lyric Opera’s 2016 season of Pygmalion is a notable exception), which made this concert all the more rewarding. The word I heard repeated by members of the audience both during and after the concert was “gorgeous”. And they were referring to the music and the playing as well as the engaging personality and virtuosity of the soprano.

It would be difficult to find a more persuasive ambassador for Rameau’s operas than Brenda Rae. Although the libretti are based on mythological and classical subjects and his librettists are widely deemed inadequate, Rameau’s musical genius allows for performance of the highest order. It is also surprisingly entertaining. As the vocal jewel in the centre of orchestral excerpts from each opera, Rae’s emotional range was as great as her astonishing vocal range. From pathos to unbuttoned hilarity her technical command enabled her to blend musical language with sentiment in seamless accord with every note being invested with meaning. It was not a case of vocal pyrotechnics for their own sake, but a response to the musical demands. Her seemingly effortless agility enabled her to bring great clarity to highly ornamented passages and the many trills were quite distinct from her natural, unobtrusive vibrato.

From the moment she entered during the instrumental playing, Rae was totally at one with the mood of the music and remained so every moment she was on stage, whether singing or not. The vocal extravaganza took flight with her opening aria “Je vole, amour”, her focused, well-projected voice capable of the softest floating tones and stratospheric upper notes. A passionate “Non, je ne verrai plus” (No, I shall no longer see) in “Tristes Apprêts” from Castor and Pollux was one of several displays of vocal power capable of filling a venue many times the size of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Both Rameau’s and Rae’s sense of fun came to the fore in “Formons les plus brillants concerts” (Let’s put on the most brilliant concerts) from Platée before interval. Full of colour and laughter, she used all the vocal and dramatic devices in her extensive armoury to thrill her listeners. When the thunder rolled, she was handed a decorative umbrella that she used to charming effect as she strolled about the stage.

The second half of the concert saw Rae in another costume designed to give a nod to the classical inspirations of the subject matter. After an exceptionally agile “Aimez vous sans cesse” (Love without ceasing) from Zoroastre she turned her attention to Les Boréades, Rameau’s last opera and one that he did not live to see performed. He would have been immensely gratified if he had heard her gripping interpretation of “Un orison serain” (A clear horizon), which began with the most beautiful soft tones before suddenly shifting to stormy drama. Rae’s arias from Les Indes Galantes ended on a triumphant note. Even from a podium at the back of the stage, she could be heard clearly above the trumpets.

As if all that vocal bravura were not enough, there was also the terrific contribution from the ANAM orchestra to add to the enjoyment. Another of Australia’s international success stories, Benjamin Bayl, directed from the harpsichord and seemed to know exactly how to elicit the best in terms of style and balance from this highly talented band of young musicians. In the chosen orchestral excerpts prominence was given to various groups of instruments with Bayl making the most of Rameau’s inventive instrumentation and use of effective contrasts. Of the many fascinating effects, those created by the bassoons were particularly memorable. I was not alone in finding their contribution remarkable; it is possibly the only time that I have heard an audience give the biggest cheer for that group of instruments at the end of an orchestral concert.

It is understandable that Nick Deutsch feels as though ANAM musicians are more like young colleagues than students. They certainly sound as though they are more than well on their way to professional careers. As Melbournians we are tremendously fortunate to have this invaluable training institution on our doorstep.

Obliging an enraptured audience’s demand for an encore, Rae sat down at the front of the stage, removed shoes that looked like a take on Roman sandals – except with ultra-high heels, and jumped down into the auditorium for a reprise of the comic aria from Platée, spinning out the highest of the high notes for the evening with elated abandonment. When Bayl picked up Rae’s discarded shoes and returned them on bended knee, his gesture of homage acted as the perfect ending for what had been a joyful experience. 

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Heather Leviston reviewed Brenda Rae’s performance of songs by Rameau, with ANAM at the Melbourne Recital Centre, October 6, 2017.