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CD Button Piau, Brahim-Djelloul, Bennani; J. Prégardien,Wilder, Lefèvre, Arnould; Chamber Choir of Namur; Les Talens Lyriques; Rousset. Libretto and translation. Aparté 109 (3)

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JEAN-PHILIPPE RAMEAU'S 1748 ZAÏS is a “pastorale lyrique,” with a libretto by his frequent collaborator Louis de Cahusac; it was a popular success, despite some critical carping about the rather stereotypical storyline, which includes four acts and an allegorical prologue—in all, two hours and thirty-eight minutes of music on Aparté’s finely engineered new live recording, made at two performances in Versailles in November 2014 under the transformative baton of Christophe Rousset. Rousset’s well-schooled ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, prove alert and incisive. If any listener still thinks of French Baroque music as stately, fustian, the delightful, swift playing here should prove a corrective. Not surprisingly for a Rameau work stemming from the same decade as Platée and Pigmalion, Zaïs contains many splendid movements for dancing; some are accompanied by the spirited Chamber Choir of Namur. The inventive overture depicts Chaos before the world’s creation!

The King of Sylphs, Zaïs (tenor Julian Prégardien), an immortal, had disguised himself as a shepherd to court the lovely Zélidie (Baroque star soprano Sandrine Piau, fresh and excellent). Prégardien is a superb musician, with—at best—a nicely ductile light lyric tenor which shines in high phrases; occasionally, in sustained material lower down, a somewhat whiny quality intrudes. Divinely ordained tests of the central couple’s love result in Zaïs abjuring his immortality, only to have both lovers rendered immortal as a reward for fidelity. As Oromazès, the deus ex machina who makes everything right, Aimery Lefèvre’s straightforward, stylishly applied baritone marks him as a welcome new addition to the French Baroque scene. 

Fellow baritone Benoit Arnould, as Zaïs’s counselor Cindor—who must attempt to seduce her in order to test her virtue—has a less dulcet timbre, but like all Rousset’s singers here, pushes the text forward with aplomb and honors stylistic niceties. Singing both a Sylphide and the Grand Priestess of Love, Amel Brahim–Djelloul shows a limpid, pleasingly agile light soprano, only occasionally hardening when applying pressure at the top. Hasnaa Bennani, as the goddess Amour herself, is similarly stylish, yet the tone in midrange can betray a hint of unsteadiness, unwelcome in such lightly instrumented and thus exposed music. American tenor Zachary Wilder makes a brief, incisive appearance as a Sylph. 

Rousset’s recording far outpaces René Jacobs’s adequate but mannered 1975 set, devoid of francophone singers and notable mainly for Max van Egmond’s elegant Cindor. —David Shengold 

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