- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

Frenchman to the core, composer and musicologist Jean-Philippe Rameau was a stubborn individualist. Born in 1683, young Jean-Philippe, a typical headstrong teenager even in those supposedly stodgier times, preferred to dabble in music rather than devote himself to the more practical study of law as his father wished. So it was not surprising to anyone when he took off to play the fiddle for a traveling theatrical troupe. He soon settled down in Paris and, quite abruptly and without any real formal training, decided he would teach himself to become a famous composer and music theorist. That’s exactly what he did. By dint of hard work and sheer force of will, Rameau overcame repeated failure to become one of the most renowned musicians in Paris, eclipsing even the revered Jean-Baptiste Lully, who had died when Rameau was still a child. Rameau invented a new “vertical” style of music that, unlike the horizontal compositions of the better-known contrapuntists, built its way up from the bass, evolving motifs and melodies out of a single harmony and its inversions. Not only did Rameau author a number of volumes outlining and demonstrating his theories, but he also put them into practice in his own compositions. Accumulating an impressive body of scholarly treatises and popular compositions, he eventually muscled his way into the musical establishment. His twin crowning glories were his appointments as conductor at the Opera Comique and as court composer in 1745 to King Louis XV. Rameau’s compositional output was prodigious and included more than 20 operas. Highly fashionable in their day, most have fallen into neglect. However, like the operas of Handel, Rameau’s musical dramas have been experiencing a minirevival of late. The Wolf Trap Opera company has jumped on the Rameau bandwagon by mounting the first-ever fully staged American performance of the composer’s “Dardanus” this week at the Barns. Like many operas, “Dardanus” was fussed with and improved after its 1739 premiere at the Opera de Paris. Wolf Trap is presenting a version that includes additional music added in 1744. Unfortunately, tonight is the company’s third and last performance of “Dardanus” this season. This opera won’t appeal to audiences who crave the more dashing, verismo stuff of Verdi and Puccini, but it has its own distinctive charms that merit fresh attention. Its delightful music is based on the composer’s harmonic theories, which distinguishes it from sometimes run-of-the-mill baroque stuff. It’s also chock-full of raucous and stirring martial music that’s surprisingly heavy on percussion, and it boasts one or two ravishing arias that seem at times almost to anticipate Schubert’s lieder of another era. Like many of Handel’s baroque opera masterpieces, Rameau’s “Dardanus” is based on ancient Greco-Roman mythology and involves plenty of timely interventions by the gods when the story is ready to go off the rails. The plot — too fantastic to recount completely here — follows the trials and tribulations of the love-struck warrior Dardanus, who has the misfortune to fall deeply in love with Iphise, daughter of his enemy Teucer, King of Phrygia. Iphise guiltily shares these sentiments but has been betrothed to Prince Antenor, who vows to eliminate Dardanus for Teucer. Unfortunately for Teucer and Antenor, Dardanus also happens to be the son of Jupiter and Electra. So it’s no big surprise that the gods, including Neptune and Venus, flip Fate on its back to cause a happy ending for the mortal offspring of Jove. They sic a giant sea serpent on Phrygia, and Dardanus heroically slays the beast, saves the Phrygians and ruins Antenor’s and Teucer’s plans. All without an assist from Hollywood’s special-effects wizards. The improbable plot of “Dardanus” gives Wolf Trap’s young singers plenty of opportunities to shine in mostly solo turns, and they make the most of them, particularly in the three chief roles. As Iphise, mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand is articulate and restrained, with her honeylike lower register possessed of great dignity and emotion. As the unlucky Antenor, baritone Markus Beam projects the passion and authority of a man of action. His voice reveals great depths of passion, and his expression of the opera’s French language — whose nasal vowels and elided consonants do not always carry clearly to the audience when sung by lesser talents — is quite effective. As Dardanus, Ross Hauck proves to be a lyric tenor of surprising dynamism and range, while at the same time conveying an almost otherworldly sweetness. This is a strenuous role physically and vocally, but it was well-commanded by Mr. Hauck, who may find this kind of opera to be a promising career path. In smaller roles, bass Matt Boehler’s booming voice gave majesty to his role as the magician, Ismenor, and bass-baritone Matthew Burns (Teucer) and mezzo Kristin Reiersen (Venus) made the most of their opportunities to shine. Robert J. Martin’s one-size-fits-all set was an effective combination of warrior tent, cavern and undersea cave. Unfortunately, his costuming concepts, at least for the men, looked cheaply constructed and more than a little threadbare. Director Chuck Hudson and choreographer Catherine Turocy have effectively re-created that charming mix of martial arts and dance that has been a vital sideshow in French opera since its earliest incarnations. Conductor Antony Walker — current and, hopefully, future director of the financially troubled Washington Concert Opera — led his orchestral forces in a brilliantly authentic re-imagining of this old score, which will become a wonderful addition to the Wolf Trap Opera’s rapidly expanding and innovative repertoire. ***1/2 WHAT: “Dardanus” by Jean-Philippe Rameau, presented by the Wolf Trap Opera WHERE: The Barns at Wolf Trap, Vienna, WHEN: Tonight at 8 TICKETS: $54. PHONE: For information and reservations, call the box office at 703/218-6500 or 800/955-5566 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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