Like Handel, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was principally a dramatic composer. But where Handel worked in forms rooted in the Italian tradition, Rameau's model was the tragédie en musique as created by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) for the court of Louis XIV. Lully's tragédies, with their combination of vocal music and orchestral dances, catered to the taste of the Sun King and his court, and that taste continued to predominate in France until the second half of the 18th century. Rameau was the last composer in that tradition, and Les Paladins, which premiered at the Opéra in Paris in February 1760, was the last of his stage works to see the light of day during his lifetime.
Though indebted to the Lullian tragédie in its combination of orchestral and vocal numbers, Les Paladins was dubbed a comédie lyrique by Rameau, a designation that captures the lighter tone of the piece. In 1752, an Italian troupe arrived in Paris, and its performances of Italian comic opera set off a battle, the Querelle des Bouffons, between supporters of the Rameau-Lully school and advocates of the Italian style. Rameau began work on Les Paladins in 1756, two years after the Querelle ended, and the opera contains numbers in the Italian style alongside the beguiling and colorful dances and airs meant to cater to the French taste. The opera's convoluted plot boils down to a competition between two men, the knight Atis (leader of the Paladins - knights - of the title) and the elderly Anselme over a young woman, Argie, who is imprisoned in Anselme's castle.
All of this elicited a series of lively and colorful numbers from Rameau. The orchestra at the Opéra hired two horn players in 1759, and the score includes elaborate and often quite beautiful parts for them. The overture, really a sinfonia in three sections (fast-slow-fast), offers the score's first example of Italian-style music, though even here, Rameau infuses his Italian form with French touches, such as the gentle sway of the minuet that comprises the overture's slow section. Many of the numbers are dances, to accompany on-stage ballet divertissements, while others accompanied the various coups de théâtre, which were part and parcel of the French opera experience at the time. The "Air pour les Pagodes" (Air for the Pagodas) was heard near the end of the first scene of the opera's third act, when Anselme has laid siege to his own castle, in an attempt to rout Atis and Argie, who have barricaded themselves inside. A fairy turns the castle into a Chinese palace, replete with a garden and Chinese statues (the "Pagodes") that come to life and pay homage to Atis and the Paladins. The suite concludes with a spirited Contredanse en rondeau (a contredance - a fast dance popular at the court of Louis XIV - with a rondo structure, meaning the initial tune returns after each contrasting episode) as everyone joins for the opera's closing "ballet général."
- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator