(Kopie 1)
03.06.2022 08:23

Rameau’s masonic opera “Zoroastre” in the 1756 version

The premiere in 1749 was a failure, but the second version of 1756 was highly acclaimed. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera “Zoroastre”, now published in a new edition as part of the “Opera Omnia Rameau”, offers an unusual subject matter and a rich musical form.

When it was first produced at the Académie royale de musique in December 1749, “Zoroastre” was given only a cool reception by the public, despite a star cast and a lavish production. Although the so-called Lulliste-Ramiste dispute that had raged around Rameau’s operas of the 1730s had largely subsided, there is evidence that enemies of the composer and of the librettist, Louis de Cahusac, mounted a cabal against the opera and that this had soured public opinion. By the time of “Zoroastre’s” first revival in 1756, Rameau and Cahusac had made huge revisions to the work. Of its five acts, only the first and fourth remained largely intact. The other three were so entirely rewritten that they do not even have the same plot, with the result that this version is to all intents and purposes a new opera which happens to share certain elements with the 1749 original.

The effects of these modifications were generally agreed to have been beneficial, and in its revised form “Zoroastre” received some 39 performances at the Académie royale de musique between 20 January 1756 and 26 March 1757, to far greater critical acclaim. The opera was revived again, with only minor modification, on 26 January 1770, to inaugurate the Académie royale’s theatre at the Palais Royal, rebuilt after the fire of 1763.

As Cahusac points out in his lengthy preface to the libretto, the choice of subject matter for Zoroastre represented a deliberate break with the classical legend and medieval romance that had traditionally formed the subject matter of the tragédie en musique genre. The theme of the libretto, derived from ancient Persian sources cited in Cahusac’s preface, is the struggle between Good and Evil. At the head of the forces of Good is the great religious reformer Zoroastre, representative of Orosmade, the Supreme Being and God of Light. Opposing him is an ambitious sorcerer Abramane (Cahusac’s invention), portrayed as servant of Ariman, Spirit of Darkness.

This stark, dualist struggle allowed Cahusac to introduce elements derived from masonic ritual and belief (he was secretary to the comte de Clermont, Grand Master of the French Grande Lodge), these being particularly evident in scenes portraying the worship of the God of Light and the preparations for Zoroastre’s initiatory mission. Contemporary commentators were struck by the opera’s didactic, philosophical tone, with its emphasis on the enlightenment that comes from initiation and on the quest for virtue and universal happiness. In the 1756 version, the masonic elements are, if anything, more apparent than in the original. During an initiation scene presided over by the Sarastro-like figure of Oromazès, king of the Génies, Zoroastre is raised to a higher state of awareness. Moreover, his initiatory mission is exalted from the liberation of Bactria to the more momentous one of freeing the universe from the powers of Evil. Greater stress is laid on Zoroastre’s preparation for his mission, during which he is entrusted with talismans.

These scenes in the new Act 2 include some of Rameau’s most ecstatic, spiritually elevated music, as does the sun worship episode in Act 3, with its sublime Hymne à la Lumière, inexplicably omitted in the course of the 1756 revival but presented in this edition in Complément 3. Oromazès’s other-worldly character is consistently enhanced (like Christ’s in Bach’s St Matthew Passion) by the halo of sustained double-stopped strings that surrounds his utterances. Moreover, the increased emphasis on Zoroastre’s religious observance creates a better foil for Abramane’s colossal occult sacrifice that occupies almost the whole of Act 4. This extraordinary ceremony works itself gradually into a frenzy, culminating in a series of astonishingly forceful ensembles.

If the 1756 version of the opera is more conventional in devoting greater space to Zoroastre’s love for the young princess Amélite, thereby somewhat undermining his status as a religious leader, many other changes in this revised version prove to be dramatic gains, and the work is musically richer and more tautly constructed than the 1749 original. Certain incidents such as Zoroastre’s rescue of Amélite are handled with greater skill, while the long, largely irrelevant episode in the 1749 version of Act 2 involving the marriage of Hindustani disciples is eliminated. With “Zoroastre”, the prologue, which had been a feature of French opera ever since its inception in the 1670s, was decisively abandoned. The overture, designed to replace it, is the first in which Rameau prepared the audience for the drama as a whole, thereby anticipating Gluck’s reforms by many years.

Graham Sadler (May 2022)