La Princesse de Navarre
with: Marilyn Hill-Smith, Eiddwen Harrhy, Frances Chambers, Judith Rees, sopranos; Michael Goldthorpe, tenor; Peter Sadvidge, baritone; Ian Caddy, Richard Wigmore, basses
English Bach Festival Singers & Baroque Orchestra
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Erato, 1980 (1996)
Sometimes, when occasional music is composed to enliven a royal celebration, its outcome is so fine and astonishing that it is a pity when these compositions are virtually forgotten after the premiere. This is the case of La Princesse de Navarre, the subject of the present review, a work composed on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin Louis, son of Louis XV of France, to Marie-Thérèse of Spain, an event that took place in February 1745. The composer was no less a person than Jean-Philippe Rameau, while one of the most authoritative writers of all times, Voltaire, provided the words, so that the now disregarded comédie-ballet has actually all the features to be memorable for those who listen to it.
The present recording is based on a new edition of Rameau’s score that for the first time includes all the music written for the work and restores the contemporary embellishments. Voltaire, who roughly criticized the premiere («the ceiling was so high that the actors appeared pygmies, and they couldn’t be heard. The contrast between noisy music, and the dialogue which was entirely lost, gave the effect of an organ resounding in a church while the priest says Mass in a low voice»), highly praised Rameau’s music and the composer himself, conscious of the value of his music, reused it in other, long-lasting works. Actually, the music of all the pieces is so exquisite that Rameau’s decision is perfectly understandable and, on the contrary, makes really incomprehensible that La Princesse de Navarre has fallen into oblivion until recent times.
Another thing that assures the quality of the music for La Princesse de Navarre is the painstaking care that induced Rameau to write several drafts before giving to the work the definitive form. Moreover, he possibly revised it when Voltaire wrote a new Prologue in 1763 for the Bordeaux revival.
The conduction of the present recording is entrusted to Nicholas McGegan, leading the English Bach Festival Singers & Baroque Orchestra with admirable skill. Rameau’s music shines under his conduction and this not only allows to imagine a festive and entertaining performance given in the golden days of the Ancien Régime and of Versailles but, more significantly, it makes possible to evaluate the quality of a work presented here at its best and to regret that it is not performed more frequently. You immediately perceive that in this music there is light and that, although it is extremely refined and skillfully composed, it has been conceived to ornament a royal and merry ceremony. This “light” is precisely the best feature of this recording and it is a great intuition on the part of McGegan to give prominence to it.
The orchestra plays wonderfully and the excellent quality of the recorded sound gives it full justice. The soloists are all fine Baroque singers and the only regret is that their parts are relatively small, but they are enough to guess their virtuosity.
A mixture of history of music and a wonderful performance allows to hear in practice what has been learned in theory and with Rameau’s La Princesse de Navarre the pleasure is stronger than ever thanks to its intrinsic and extrinsic value.