136. Naïs (Rameau)

  • Pastorale héroïque in a prologue and 3 acts
  • Composer: Jean-Philippe Rameau
  • Librettist: Louis de Cahusac
  • First performed: 22 April 1749

Gossip and art critic Louis Petit de Bachaumont attended a 1764 reprise of Rameau’s opera for peace.  “The ballet’s text has always been considered dreadful – but a multitude of dances enliven it.  All that is most brilliant in this genre appears.”

Like most of Rameau’s works, Naïs is more descriptive than dramatic.  The pastorale héroïque – more ballet than opera – was commissioned to celebrate the Treaty of Aachen (1748), ending the War of Austrian Succession (1740–48).  The ballet celebrated Louis XV in his guise as Jupiter, bringer of peace. France – with Prussia and Bavaria – had opposed Archduchess Maria Theresa inheriting the Hapsburg crown.  At Aachen, France yielded her conquered fortresses and interest in Austrian politics.

It was performed 48 times – then not mounted for another 15 years. Contemporary audiences, Denécheau records, complained that the libretto was dull and the music passionless, despite charming divertissements.

The plot is indeed negligible; characterization and action almost nil; and the arias nondescript.  This, surprisingly, doesn’t matter.

Instead, there are battles in heaven, athletic contests, flotillas on fire, dancing shepherds, and underwater palaces. Dramatic tension would have been out of place.

The spectacular Prologue depicts the Titans and giants piling up mountains to reach the heavens and topple the gods from Mt Olympus.  Jupiter strikes down the monsters with his lightning bolts; the mountain sinks under the stage; and falling rocks crush the giants.  (French opera abounds in these special effects; Les indes galantes features an erupting volcano, and more boulders squashing the villain.)  The Prologue ends with nymphs and zephyrs dancing a brilliant rigaudon, and gods and mortals alike praising Zeus (“Heureux vainqueur”).

In the ballet proper, Neptune has fallen in love with the nymph Naïs.  He isn’t the old man of the sea, almost certainly a bass, who terrified Ernest Hemingway and Erik the Viking.  He’s a juvenile lead – a light, lyric tenor (haute-contre), a flirtatious god with an eye for the ladies.  He disguises himself as a mortal to woo Naïs, but his rivals Astérion and Télénus object.  They plot to murder him, so Neptune drowns them in a freak tidal wave. 

The first act features a reconstruction of the Isthmian Games, in honour of Neptune – a ballet figuré, with boxing, wrestling, and running.  (In Metastasio’s contemporary L’olimpiade, track and field events are offstage.)  It has a chaconne for wrestlers, a racing quadrille of young Greek women, and an athlete dancing a triumphal air en rondeau.  Sea gods, disguised as sailors, arrive by ship to praise Naïs.  Their impressive chorus “Règne, triomphe dieu des armes” closes the act, with more dancing.

The second act is decidedly bucolic.  Shepherds dance, to the strains of a musette, outside the cave of the blind seer Tiresias (“Ô Tirésie! écoutez-nous”).  Act III ends with a nearly 20-minute divertissement at Neptune’s underwater palace; he crowns Naïs his queen, as the sea divinities rejoice.


SUGGESTED RECORDING

Chantal Santon-Jeffery (Naïs), Reinoud Van Mechelen (Neptune), Florian Sempey (Jupiter, Tirésie), Thomas Dolié (Pluton, Télénus), and Manuel Nuñez-Camelino, with György Vashegyi conducting the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra, Recorded Budapest 2017; Glossa 2018.


WORKS CONSULTED

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