- Tragédie lyrique in 5 acts
- Composer: Jean-Philippe Rameau
- Libretto: Charles Antoine Le Clerc de la Bruère
- First performed : Académie royale de musique, Paris, 19 November 1739 (revised 23 April 1744)
The tragédie lyrique, with its emphasis on text and ballet, bewildered foreigners: Burney considered the form “displeasing to all ears but those of France, which had been nursed in it”, while Italian listeners were puzzled by the absence of proper arias.
The French found Dardanus – Rameau’s third serious opera – inept even by their standards. It was, they thought, a wearisome mixture of the old and the new. The libretto was clumsy, idiotic, and conventional; the music too unconventional, too difficult for audiences used to Lully.
Dardanus begins with the customary dreaded Prologue, a kind of cantata that kills the action before it’s begun. In practice, the opera proper doesn’t start until nearly 40 minutes into the performance. The audience watches a ballet – and they keep watching ballet. There are menuets, tambourins, gigues, and chaconnes. As a distraction from the ballet, there’s a bit of opera: a subplot about a chap called Dardanus (son of Zeus), who loves Iphise, whose father Teucer has promised her to Anténor, a rival king. Dardanus doesn’t appear in the first or third acts. There are also a sorcerer and a sea monster in there, too. But mainly it’s about the dancing.
Almost nothing happens in three hours; there is more action in the first ten minutes of Vinci’s Artaserse than in all of Dardanus. The characters are ciphers. The one point of interest is that the “villain” Anténor is far more sympathetic than the bland hero Dardanus; he loves and loses Iphise, and exits a broken man.
The score, though, must have seemed either startlingly new or shockingly fresh in the moribund context of French opera, almost unchanged since Lully produced Cadmus et Hermione 66 years earlier. Hippolyte et Aricie, Rameau’s first and easily best work, had provoked a furious quarrel between Lullistes and Ramistes; Castor et Pollux and Dardanus rekindled the fires. (Rousseau, later no friend to French serious opera, unfavourably compared Rameau to Lully, damning his works as “baroque”.) Rameau is musically livelier, more harmonically advanced, than anything in Lully, with a more Italianate singing style, full of runs and vocal display. The recit, though, is the stately tedium one expects from tragédie lyrique.
Elements are familiar from Lully, but the aesthetic is defiantly anti-Lullian. The Italian’s operas are text foremost (hence the 18th century French aversion to music: nothing must get in the way of the clarity of the word); Rameau places music first. The meagre plot is little more than an excuse for spectacle: Teucer musters his troops (I); the cavernous-voiced wizard Isménor summons up demons (II); Phrygians celebrate Iphise’s forthcoming wedding to Anténor (III); and deities visit the sleeping Dardanus (IV).
Dardanus failed; houses were fully booked well in advance, but the public lost interest. In its first run, Dardanus was performed only 26 times, rather than the expected 40. Rameau and his librettist revised the work in 1744, without great success. The first two acts were largely unchanged, but the last three were completely rewritten. Admirers say it anticipates Gluck; it still remains dull. The chief musical additions are a quartet in the first act (expanded from a trio), “Il est temps de courir aux armes”, a masterly demonstration of counterpoint, ending in the thrilling (albeit too short) “Mars, Bellone, guidez nos coups”; and the scene “Lieux funestes” in the fourth.
1739: John Mark Ainsley (Dardanus), Véronique Gens (Iphise), Laurent Naouri (Anténor), Russell Smythe (Teucer), Jean-Philippe Courtis (Isménor), and Mireille Delunsch (Vénus), with Mark Minkowski conducting Les Musiciens du Louvre. Deutsche Grammophon, 2000.
Watch: Reinoud van Mechelen (Dardanus), Gaëlle Arquez (Iphise), Florian Sempey (Anténor), Nahuel de Pierro (Teucer and Isménor), Karina Gauvin (Vénus), with Raphaël Pichon conducting Ensemble Pygmalion. Harmonia Mundi, 2016.
1744: Bernard Richter (Dardanus), Gaëlle Arquez (Iphise), Benoît Arnould (Anténor), Alain Buet (Teucer), João Fernandes (Isménor), and Sabine Deveilhe (Vénus), with Raphaël Pichon conducting Ensemble Pygmalion. Alpha, 2013.
- Charles Burney, A General History of Music: From the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (1789), Dover 1957
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
- “Dardanus“, Opéra Baroque