Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) turned to opera late in his long life at the age of fifty, devoting the final thirty years of his career almost exclusively to it. Yet the composer insisted his passion for the genre began at age 12, while his penchant for spontaneously bursting into song reportedly disrupted classrooms throughout his early schooling. Whatever the reason for the long wait, Rameau came to the stage an accomplished composer and respected theoretician, with his seminal 1722 Treatise on Harmony put most fruitfully into practice. The Boston Early Music Festival’s presentation of “Dreams and Monsters: The Theatrical Orchestra of Jean Philippe Rameau” showcased both the composer’s vitality and originality and the often unprecedented demands he made on his performers. It also demonstrated clearly why his operas challenged the ears of his audience and often had to wait for several revivals (and in some cases even the 20th century) to be appreciated and accepted.

Pierre-François Dollé and Caroline Copeland
© Kathy Wittman

Robert Mealy led the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra from the concertmaster’s chair in a mix of arias, dances, and instrumental passages from Castor et Pollux (1737) and Dardanus (1739) bracketed in the first case by orchestral selections from the Pastorale Héroique, Naïs (1749) and in the second from Les Fêtes de Polymnie (1745) and Les Indes galantes (1735).

Naïs celebrates the end of the War of Austrian Succession, recasting it as an assault of Titans and Giants on Olympus. Drums and syncopated trumpets dominate its overture. Opening the program, it was appropriately loud, aggressively rhythmic and bellicose, highlighted by the bravura triple tonguing of the trumpets Rameau requires here and elsewhere in the evening. The BEMF orchestra played with dramatic intensity, sensitivity and rhythmic variety throughout the evening, proving themselves once again one of the finest of baroque orchestras.

Baroque dance stalwarts, Caroline Copeland and Pierre-François Dollé, choreographed and danced with composure, grace, and élan a series of dances from Castor et Pollux and later Dardanus, ranging from stately minuets and gavottes to the more energetic and kinetic tambourin. They performed solo, together, and often around the singers. The dances were so infectious that swathes of the audience viewed from the balcony looked like ranks of bobble-head dolls.

Emőke Baráth and the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra
© Kathy Wittman

Emőke Baráth’s creamy, smooth soprano featured in three selections to great effect: Télaire’s elegy for her dead husband, Castor, “Tristes apprêts” (almost a duet with the bassoon functioning as the lower voice) and Iphise’s lament, “Cesse cruel amour” and “Pour la fête où l’on vous appelle” from Dardanus.

The magician Isménor stops the sun in Dardanus. His menacing incantation called on the full range of Christian Immler’s impressive, oaky bass-baritone as Dollé, caped and costumed, twirled and posed around him. Castor’s “Nature, Amour” exploited a more plangent tone and even legato. Teresa Wakim’s lighter, more florid arias, “Sur les ombres fugitives” (Castor et Pollux) and “Volez, Plaisirs” (Les fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, 1747) glimmered with the refracted light of bright crystals.

Dreams abounded in the form of visions and what-ifs, while demons, aside from Isménor, were more implied than present. However the variety and invention of Rameau’s operatic output was well represented by even this limited selection of excerpts, proving once again how unique and eloquent he was and remains.