Old Is Newly Apt In Rameau’s ‘Temple of Glory’

Rameau’s ‘Le Temple de la Gloire,’ staged by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and New York Baroque Dance
Company, featured Aaron Sheehan as Apollo with his muses. (Production photos: Frank Wing)
By Janos Gereben

BERKELEY, Calif. – Scientists may scoff, but in a remarkable practical demonstration, space-time continuum was very much in evidence April 28 on this University of California campus.

Aaron Sheehan sang both Apollo and the emperor Trajan.

Measured by time, 272 years have passed since Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera-ballet The Temple of Glory spoke of and to Louis XV, called questionably “The Well-Beloved,” about the options for rulers to choose between good and evil. But only negligible distance separated the first modern revival of Temple inside Zellerbach Hall from the conflict outside the theater between demonstrators avowing anti-Trump, young Republican, and free-speech sentiments. Some were even Ann Coulter fans. Questions of governance there and now, here and there.

To emphasize the relevance of that long-ago spectacular in the Great Stable of Versailles, musicologist Victor Gavenda’s program notes recall that Voltaire, who wrote the libretto for Temple, approached the king after the performance and asked “Is Trajan happy?” – driving home the opera’s point that the “good king” triumphs and Louis XV should emulate the benevolent Roman emperor. The king gave Voltaire an icy look and no response. Unlike Trajan, named “optimus princeps” (the best ruler) by the Senate and shown in the opera freeing prisoners of war, Louis did no such thing in several losing wars.

Behind the elaborate spectacle of Temple is a very simple story told in a grand manner, with flowery language. There are three attempts to enter Apollo’s allegorical Temple of Glory, guarded by the Muses. Both the brutish Bélus (baritone Philippe-Nicolas Martin) and habitually inebriated Bacchus (baroque high tenor Artavazd Sargsyan) fail, but the noble Trajan triumphs at the end of the three-hour opera. (Apologies for the spoiler.)

The two bad characters have powerful voices. Aaron Sheehan, who sang both Apollo and Trajan, delivered the music impressively, but the lyrical tenor – like Sargsyan, Sheehan is called haute-contre – had a bit of a problem with the large venue. Caroline Copeland was the brilliant principal dancer, who also played a central role in the drama.

Meggi Sweeney Smith, foreground, as Venus. Costume design by Marie Anne Chiment.

Conductor Nicholas McGegan, his Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale, noted baroque soloists, and Catherine Turocy’s New York Baroque Dance Company flooded the Zellerbach stage and pit. Turocy – with 80 Baroque operas to her credit, including 15 by Rameau – was stage director and choreographer; the lavish costumes, requiring a separate fund drive, were designed by Marie Anne Chiment and the impressive sets by Scott Blake.

The full Philharmonia Baroque, led by the distinguished concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock, was on fire throughout the evening.

Among the guest artists from France in this co-production by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, Cal Performances, and Philharmonia Baroque were sopranos Chantal Santon-Jeffery (La Gloire, Lydie) and Gabrielle Philiponet (Arsine) and baritone Marc Labonnette (Envy and other roles).

Temple is a delight for musicologists and historians, enabling Rameau devotees to go beyond a recent recording of the work and experience what in Berkeley is called a world premiere production in its fully-staged form. Both McGegan and UC Berkeley have key roles in this ambitious and difficult project. Almost a quarter century ago, the manuscript of the first version of the opera was found in the UC library. Ever since, McGegan has been working on the project, even if a fully staged production at first seemed, he said, “simply too daunting a prospect either logistically or financially.”

At the end of a long road, with international cooperation and a legion of supporters, McGegan’s dream, which he called “living musicology,” became a reality. As it must have been in Versailles, probably with far more royal patronage than available these days, Le Temple de la Gloire was glorious in its grand presentation in Berkeley at the first of three performances, bracketed by lectures and workshops.

Artavazd Sargsyan as Bacchus, Camille Ortiz-Lafont as Erigone.

As Philharmonia Baroque Chorale director Bruce Lamott wrote in the program notes, Rameau differs greatly from the contemporary Italian opera seria’s “string-of-pearls alternation of arias and freely sung recitatives” by presenting “an unpredictable variety show of dances, choruses, ensembles, and shorter arias interspersed with lyrical recitatives and audacious harmonic surprises.” McGegan, who has led acclaimed productions of Rameau’s Platée, said that opera and Temple come from the composer’s “best period, when he was at his most cranky and most individual.”

Dancing in the French Baroque period was an art form very different from both classical ballet and, of course, modern dance. In Turocy’s choreography and with athletic and graceful dancers, the ballet portions are of the hop-skip-and-jump variety with elaborate and formal arm and leg movements. There is also a great deal of clowning and gymnastics. Turocy’s description is: “The late-18th-century ballet technique uses a 90-degree rotation of the legs, pointed and relaxed foot, complicated pirouettes with varying foot placements, full-range leg extensions, and various expressive attitudes, as well as acrobatic and virtuosic steps for grotesque characters.”

Orchestral and choral passages and most of the ballet music represent Rameau at his best, but the frequent recitatives often sound monotonous – at least, to those not fully committed to French Baroque. (I never had the same experience with Henry Purcell.) McGegan, of course, is far more positive, even sanguine about that topic:

“Rameau has several grades of recitatives: full accompanied recit sometimes with flutes as well as strings. This grandest of the recit style is pretty much reserved for the noblest characters: Trajan, Plautine, and Glory. In other words, pretty much only in the last act. The rest is all continuo, heavily figured to have the richest harmony. Sometimes these recits are blended in with little snatches of arias, on occasion just a couple of bars long. Sometimes these are marked Air or Mesuré.”

Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour and the cellos –always present in Rameau recitatives – made significant contributions.

Janos Gereben has written for the New York Herald-Tribune, Time-Life, UPI, Detroit Free Press, and for San Francisco Classical Voice since its founding in 1998.

Conductor Nicholas McGegan and director-choreographer Catherine Turocy (center in black) and cast take bows.