Les Boréades

Les Boréades is a tragédie lyrique mise en musique, or a lyric tragedy put into music, a type of opera, in five acts by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). It is the last of his five such works. The libretto, attributed to Louis de Cahusac (1706–1759), is loosely based on the Greek legend of Abaris the Hyperborean and includes Masonic elements; the Boréades are the descendants of Boréas.


There were no known performances of this opera in Rameau's lifetime. The work was in rehearsal in 1763 at the Paris Opéra, probably for a private performance at the court at Choisy. It is not known why the performance was abandoned, though many theories have been put forward, including that factions at court fought over it, the music was too difficult, there were subversive plot elements, and that the Opéra was burnt down in the month of rehearsals. The first known performance of the work was in 1770 in a concert performance at Lille. J. J. M. Decroix had collected Rameau's works after the composer's death, and thus ensured survival of this score. The Bibliothèque Nationale housed the collected works, including various manuscripts related to this opera.[1]

Modern performance history

The first modern performance of the work was by the ORTF in 1964 on 16 September 1964 (celebrating the 200th anniversary of Rameau's death) at the Maison de la Radio in Paris, recorded for broadcast the following month; the cast included Christiane Eda-Pierre and Andre Mallabrera.[2] It owes its modern revival to the conductor John Eliot Gardiner, who gave a concert version of the piece (in which Trevor Pinnock played harpsichord continuo) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 14 April 1975, for which he had prepared the orchestral material from the original manuscripts over the preceding year. In July 1982, Gardiner gave the first fully staged performance with Catherine Turocy, choreographer, and her New York Baroque Dance Company at the Aix-en-Provence Festival.[3] Since then, the opera's reputation and popularity have grown considerably.


Role Voice type Premiere cast
(unperformed in Rameau's lifetime)
Alphise soprano
Sémire soprano
Borilée baritone
Calisis haute-contre
Abaris haute-contre
Adamas baritone
A nymph soprano
L'Amour (Cupid) soprano
Polymnie (Polyhymnia) soprano
Boréas bass
Apollon baritone
Pleasures, Graces, Apollo's priests, Bactrian people, Seasons,
Zephyrs, Subterranean Winds (chorus)


Alphise, Queen of Bactria, is in love with Abaris, whose origins are unknown. According to the traditions of her country, Alphise must marry a Boread, one of the descendants of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. Determined to marry Abaris, Alphise abdicates, angering Boreas who storms into the wedding and abducts Alphise to his kingdom. With the help of Apollo and the muse Polyhymnia, Abaris sets off to rescue her. He challenges Boreas and his sons with a magic golden arrow. Apollo descends as deus ex machina and reveals that Abaris is really his son by a Boread nymph. Therefore, there is no longer any obstacle to Abaris and Alphise's marriage.


The opera has no entry in Francis Clough and G. J. Cuming's World's Encyclopedia of Recorded Music, which documents most significant classical recordings of the electrical 78 RPM era, but the first recording of an excerpt is likely to have been one of the relatively few such disks omitted from that publication: pianist Marie Novello's performance of "Gavottes pour les Heures from Act IV", recorded on March 1, 1927[4] and issued as one side of HMV 10" 78 RPM record no. B 2592, labeled simply "Gavotte."

Complete recordings from the modern era include:


  1. Sadler, Graham, "Rameau's Last Opera: Abaris, ou Les Boréades (April 1975). The Musical Times, 116 (1586): pp.327–329.
  2. Readers' Letters - 'Les Boréades' in France. Opera, February 1983, Vol.34 No.2, p148-149.
  3. Modern performance information: notes to Gardiner's recording of Les Boréades.
  4. Biographical sketch at the Naxos Records website, accessed 6 November 2008
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