Les Fêtes d’Hébé (Orfeo Orchestra, Purcell Choir, György Vashegyi)
Rameau’s opera-ballet Hebe’s Holidays was one of the composer’s most popular works during his lifetime. It enjoyed almost 400 releases after its creation in 1739, its popularity only waning after Rameau’s death 25 years later. Though light on the story, the lively and inventive score is irresistible, and one can only imagine the kind of spectacle 18th-century houses would put on when staging this intriguing work.
The opera begins when Hebe, the goddess of youth, leaves Mount Olympus in search of entertainment. She finds him on the banks of the Seine, where she observes and participates in festivities celebrating poetry, music and dance. These parties form the three acts of the opera, which freely mix song and dance, and are populated by a troupe of mythological characters.
A recording might seem like a slightly antithetical way to present something so dependent on the visual, but this latest release from Glossa with György Vashegyi and the Orfeo Orchestra cancels any worries you might have. The musicians play with palpable pleasure and their interpretations are delicate but full of character. The textures are crisp across the board, the tightness of the strings is commendable, and there’s a rhythmic vibrancy to the dances that makes this thin story feel utterly essential in the moment.
Vashegyi has also assembled a solid training of singers, almost all of whom are specialists in French Baroque. They bring to the language an authority and a dexterity which are not mistaken and invest the opera with a surprising depth of feeling without ever lacking in charm.
The brightest is soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery, who takes on Hebe and three additional roles on top of that. Her instrument has an inherently dignified sound, with a shimmering dark color that enchants the ear, and she deftly balances the whimsy of the work with a sense of restraint. The composer’s more delicate vocal writing poses no difficulty for her, Santon-Jeffery dispatching the virtuoso passages with joyous ease.
Note also the performance of tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen, a singer of incomparable intelligence and sense of Rameau’s music. He’s a splendid, clear and expressive voice with a diction to die for, and he brings with him a sense of playfulness and research so well that you never know exactly how a sentence will end. One of the highlights of the recording is his rendition of the Mercury aria, L’Objet qui Reign dans Mon Soul, and he is sure to be an artist listeners will want to follow. Soprano Judith van Wanroij is a similar welcome find for this reviewer, whose fruity, heavier instrument is used to great dramatic effect.
The Purcell Choir do their proud here, with superb ensemble, intonation and balance. Vashegyi draws an exceptionally incisive sound from it and, like the soloists, the Choir seems very well attuned to the expressive universe of this repertoire. Above all, they embody the spirit and the momentum of the work, it is not an easy task.
This registration is highly recommended.
Work: Hebe’s Holidays
Performers: Soloists, Orfeo Orchestra, Purcell Choir, György Vashegyi
Label: Glossa GCD924012 (2CD)