In a labor of love involving scholarship, performance, and global collaboration, The Temple of Glory, a 1745 French opera with music by Rameau and an allegorical libretto by Voltaire, was resurrected in its original form at Zellerbach Hall last weekend for the first time in over 270 years. The extravagant rarity was produced by San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale and France's Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, with lots of dancing by the New York Baroque Dance Company. (Pictured above is Aaron Sheehan as Apollo in one of costume designer Marie Anne Chiment's wilder creations.)
The opera was written for Louis XV to celebrate the end of a war in what was to become Belgium, and was lavishly staged in a new theater on the grounds of Versailles. The narrative involves a prologue with Envy, Dancing Demons and Muses, followed by three acts where three leaders try to enter the Temple of Glory. Belus and Bacchus are refused entry on account of the mayhem they have unleashed on the world, while Trajan brings home prisoners of war but frees them in a moment of mercy as a tribute to his wife, which opens the doors to the Temple by Glory herself. In other words, Voltaire was instructing his ruler to "Make Love, Not War" which reportedly did not sit well with the king. (Pictured above is an ostrich who was an amusing non sequitur in the funny, inebriated, orgiastic Act Two featuring Bacchus, fauns and satyrs.)
Rameau wrote some of the liveliest dance music of the Baroque era and though I have heard some of it played live before, this was the first time hearing it with dancers, which was delightful. Unlike Italian opera, where ballets often feel silly and intrusive, Baroque French operas were more of a variety show with equal parts singing and dancing. The choreography by baroque dance veteran Catherine Turocy was interesting, sometimes professionally virtuosic but other times restrained as if these were demonstrations of latest dance steps that the Versailles public could learn to perform themselves.
The principal singers were mostly from France, and their abilities were all over the map, though it was hard to tell if some of the vocal unevenness was due to the acoustical nightmare that is Zellerbach Hall. Camille Ortiz-Lafonte and Gabrielle Philiponnet managed to project nicely and played the different roles of goddesses, wives, and lovers with elan. I also liked Philippe-Nicolas Martin as Belus in the soldier outfit above.
Also a pleasure to watch and hear were Aaron Sheehan as Apollo at the beginning and magnanimous Trajan at the end, along with Chantal Santon-Jeffery as La Gloire (Glory) herself.
The most consistently beautiful sound came from the Philharmonia Baroque Chorale, singing with a perfect fullness that sounded like a group twice their size. It probably helped that they were seated in front of the proscenium.
Philharmonia Baroque Artistic Director and conductor Nicholas McGegan (not pictured) has nourished a dream of producing this opera since its manuscript made its way from the estate of pianist Alfred Cortot to a UC Berkeley music library in 1976. For a Baroque opera orchestra, the forces are huge, close to 40 instrumentalists, and they were integral to the pleasure of the three-hour Sunday matinee. I hope the production is taken on the road so the rest of the world can see it.