Le Temple de la Gloire just had its modern-day première in Berkeley. Sort of. Rameau’s (and Voltaire’s) opéra-ballet has a confusing history. The work is similar to Rameau’s better-known Les Indes galantes, in that it’s a series of scenes (with both singing and dancing) united by a theme rather than a single plot. But where Les Indes galantes was about love among savages, Le Temple de la Gloire is about ruling well. Gods and kings seek entry into the eponymous Temple of Glory, but only the worthiest is admitted.

Aaron Sheehan (Apollo) © Frank Wing
Aaron Sheehan (Apollo)
© Frank Wing

King Louis XV, for whom the opera was written, did not appreciate the lecture. A new version – more romantic and less critical of kings – was quickly created. That 1746 edition survived, but the original 1745 score has only recently been reconstructed from an outline in Berkeley’s archives. Hence the modern première, a massive undertaking co-produced by Cal Performances, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, and Centre de musique baroque de Versailles. The result is a truly kingly entertainment. 

Catherine Turocy, artistic director of the New York Baroque Dance Company, choreographed both the blocking and the dancing with great beauty and attention to period detail. The performers held studiously asymmetrical poses and formed charming stage pictures. The choreography included humor as well as displays of athleticism and grace. A comedic danced staff fight (by Brynt Beitman and Olsi Gjeci) was a highlight, as was a delightful tambourine dance (by Carly Fox Horton).

Andrew Trego (Mars) and Meggi Sweeney Smith (Venus) © Frank Wing
Andrew Trego (Mars) and Meggi Sweeney Smith (Venus)
© Frank Wing

Marie Anne Chiment’s exquisite costumes added to the spectacle. Apollo was radiant in golden armor; Glory sparkled in a silver 18th-century robe de cour. The nine Muses signaled their respective identities with appropriate props. The colorful silks and large turban of Bacchus and Érigone perfectly conveyed their languid decadence. Their pet ostrich (danced by Meggi Sweeney Smith) was a particularly funny touch. Scott Blake’s sets completed the period look of the production, with rows of painted legs creating depth. Projected backdrops had the hand-painted aesthetic of a Baroque set, but showed burning fire and moving clouds as well as stationary hills and temples.

Artavazd Sargsyan (Bacchus) and Camille Ortiz-Lafont © Frank Wing
Artavazd Sargsyan (Bacchus) and Camille Ortiz-Lafont
© Frank Wing
A cast of Baroque specialists offered an abundance of vocal riches. Everyone on the stage could sing with crisp French and turn a perfect trill. It’s an ensemble show, with all the soloists taking on multiple roles across the acts. Marc Labonnette was not always audible in his prologue appearance as Envy, but he showed a big, booming baritone when he returned as a shepherd and a priest. The other baritone, Philippe-Nicolas Martin, displayed nice bluster and a smooth, deep voice as the cruel warrior-king Bélus. The three sopranos were excellent and blessedly distinct: Camille Ortiz-Lafont wowed with her agile trills and runs; Gabrielle Philiponet with her tragic poses and cutting voice; and Chantal Santon-Jeffrey with her wide range, from a gravelly bottom to a crystal-clear top. Haute-contres are always a treat, and they didn’t disappoint here, either. Artavazd Sargsyan had amazing falsetto top notes as the pleasure-seeking Bacchus, and Aaron Sheehan put his vocal flexibility and honeyed tone to good use as the god Apollo and the magnanimous king Trajan.

The Philharmonia Baroque Chorale sang the varied, tightly harmonized choruses with precision and full sound. Members of the Chorale also expertly took on small roles throughout the opera. Jennifer Ashworth, Tonia d’Amelio, and Heidi Waterman tackled tricky music in gorgeous voice as the three muses. The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, got off to an uncertain start, with muddled brass playing in the overture. They soon found their stride, though. The lively dance music of the third act was full of verve, and the flute solos in the finale were a triumph of agility.

Aaron Sheehan (Apollo) and his Muses © Frank Wing
Aaron Sheehan (Apollo) and his Muses
© Frank Wing

There is no emotion or conflict in Le Temple de la Gloire. There are moments of stylized rage or despair, but it’s mostly a series of allegorical tableaux. The good ruler (Trajan) trades his personal glory for public happiness. (Here, public happiness is a big Baroque dance party.) Thank goodness there exist other operatic sub-genres with drama, something this sort of fluffy opéra-ballet sorely lacks. But for sheer beauty, both visual and auditory, this lovingly produced Le Temple de la Gloire could not be surpassed.