André Cardinal Destouches (1672-1749) is virtually unknown today, but he was the preeminent composer of French opera in the half century between the end of Lully's career and the beginning of Rameau's. On the basis of this fine recording of Callirhoé, considered one of his most important operas, the neglect is difficult to understand. Its strength lies not so much in its originality -- it basically develops the conventions established by Lully -- but in the music's ability to illuminate the drama. Destouches was clearly a master of music for the theater; his scenes build with power and inexorability, and his dramatic confrontations, in particular, are vividly expressed. The conclusion of the second act, for example, depicting the priests of Bacchus going on a rampage, has a wildness and energy one usually associates not so much with the Baroque as with the heat of the Romantic era. The starkness of the opera's finale, which abruptly ends with a character's suicide, is brilliant theater, but entirely out of character with the conventions of the time, which would have required a tidy denouement, and most likely, the intervention of a deity. The first, 1712 version of Callirhoé, in fact, had just such an ending, but the composer revised the opera extensively for revivals in 1731 and 1743, and wisely rethought the finale, hugely increasing its effectiveness. Destouches' vocal writing is expressive and gratifyingly lyrical, and even his recitatives have emotional power. His orchestration is notably varied and colorful.
The recording is the result of the commitment and passion of Hervé Niquet, director of Le Concert Spirituel, which he leads in this outstanding performance. The orchestra and chorus perform with energy and finesse, and the climaxes are thrillingly urgent. The soloists, none of whom are international stars, sound like they ought to be, singing with unfailing purity, idiomatic security, and dramatic intensity. Glossa's exemplary sound is full, warm, and spacious, with excellent balance. Callirhoé should be of strong interest to any fan of Baroque opera, and a reminder of the wealth of strong repertoire that has yet to achieve broad exposure.