Boston Early Music Festival to Present a Marc-Antoine Charpentier Double Bill at Jordan Hall, Sat. Nov. 25 and 8 pm and Sun. Nov. 26 at 3 pm

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Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Double Bill
La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers
La Couronne de fleurs

Saturday, November 26, 2011 at 8pm
Sunday, November 27, 2011 at 3pm
New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, Boston

Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin, Stage Director
Anna Watkins, Costume Designer
Melinda Sullivan, Choreographer

Pre-concert talks an hour before the performances by John S. Powell, Professor of Music, The University of Tulsa.

BEMF Vocal Ensemble
Aaron Sheehan, Orphée
Mireille Asselin, Carrie Henneman Shaw, Michael Kelly,
Olivier Laquerre, Thea Lobo, Jason McStoots,
Megan Stapleton, Brenna Wells, Douglas Williams

BEMF Chamber Ensemble
Robert Mealy, concertmaster
Cynthia Roberts, violin
Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba
Christel Thielmann, viola da gamba
Beiliang Zhu, viola da gamba
Gonzalo X. Ruiz, oboe & recorder
Kathryn Montoya, oboe & recorder
Avi Stein, harpsichord
Paul O’Dette, Baroque guitar and theorbo
Stephen Stubbs, Baroque guitar and theorbo

BEMF Dance Ensemble
Carlos Fittante, Olsi Gjeci, Caitlin Klinger, Alexis Silver

Surely one of the great joys of being a music-lover in the present day is our rediscovery of French baroque opera—not to mention the Italian and German masterpieces with which the Boston Early Music Festival has regaled its audiences over three decades. The amazing resurrection of Les Arts Florissants’ legendary 1985 production of Lully’s Atys this year brought that home. (It is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.) BEMF had produced Rameau’s Zoroastre in 1983. After that 18 years passed until they returned to French opera in their 2001 production of Lully’s Thésée, followed by Psyché in 2007. While these four represent the most public strain of opera in Paris, the grand spectacles produced either under royal patronage or at the Opéra, BEMF’s chamber opera series has provided a window on the smaller-scale, more private sort of performances cultivated by Marie de Lorraine, the Duchesse de Guise, with music by her house composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise, by Daniel Dumonstier, 1627

Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise, by Daniel Dumonstier, 1627

She presented  these in the House of Lorraine’s compound in Paris, known then as the Hôtel de Guise, barely a half hour’s walk from the Palais-Royal. With her vast wealth she maintained a troupe of at least thirteen singers and instrumentalists, who played in a “cabinet de la musique” adjacent to the grand salon. Charpentier contributed not only as a composer, but as a highly prized haute contre among the singers. Mademoiselle de Guise, as she was known, and Charpentier were connected through Italy. She had lived in exile in Florence between 1634 and 1643, where she entered Medici circles and learned to love everything Italian, above all, Italian music. Charpentier went to Rome to study with Carissimi in 1665. After his return to Paris in 1670, he entered Mademoiselle’s service and took up residence in the Hôtel de Guise, where he remained until 1687 or 88, the year of her death.

Charpentier’s position at the Hôtel de Guise gave him a security and creative scope barred him at court by Lully’s aggressive self-protectiveness. His patron was famously pious. This and the other opportunities that came his way account for the predominance of ecclesiastical compositions in his oeuvre, which did not at all discourage a lively round of secular entertainments at the Hôtel. La descente d’Orphée aux enfers is one of eight theater works for chamber ensemble that Charpentier composed for Mademoiselle de Guise between c. 1684 and 1687. Some of these are pastorales. His Ovidian chamber opera, Actéon, (1683-5) was performed by BEMF two years ago, and now they turn to La descente, which is likely to have been performed around 1686. In this double bill BEMF will also offer La couronne des fleurs, a pastorale composed about a year earlier, quite possibly for Mademoiselle, but it is also thought that Charpentier may have written it for her less devout daughter-in-law, who lived in the grand and luxurious Palais du Luxembourg across the Seine.

This short divertissement emerged from Charpentier’s association with Molière’s Troupe du Roi (after 1680 the Comédie-Française), which began in 1672, not long after his installation with the Guises and presumably facilitated by this connection. In this he replaced Lully, who had broken with Molière the previous year and who by then saw his future in full-blown musical stage works, the great operas he wrote for the king. For La couronne, Charpentier reworked the prologue he had written over ten years before for Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire (1673) as a glorification of the king. The numerous references to peace in the work suggest that it was created for the celebrations of the Peace of Ratisbon, which, although signed on August 15, 1684, was officially celebrated the following summer. La couronne, as well as Les Arts florissants and La Fête de Rueil is likely to have been commissioned for the grand celebrations organized for the king in the orangerie of the Château de Sceaux on July 16, 1685 by Colbert’s son, the marquis de Seignalay.

In spite of its occasional, celebratory origins, La couronne des fleurs is a rich, nuanced work, full of seductive writing for various vocal combinations with subtle, shifting, occasionally quite dissonant harmonies emerging from the ensemble. The themes of seasonal change and sudden changes of weather before the outburst of flowers in the spring recalls Quinault’s prologue to Atys. There is not a trace of shallowness or cynicism in Charpentier’s work. No less than Lully, he understood that the praise of his monarch deserved his best effort…and plenty of color and charm. In spite of the magnitude of the occasion it was intended for, the work has an intimate feeling.  This should be an occasion for the best of BEMF’s showmanship, costume, and dance. We can only wonder if M. Blin will bring the Roi Soleil himself on stage.

La descent d’Orphée aux enfers, by contrast, is an affecting tragédie lyrique, in which Ovid’s narrative is related with touching pathos and humanity. The existence of the work was not made public until 1929, and its two acts seem incomplete, since the opera ends with Pluto’s relinquishment of Eurydice and her departure with Orpheus to the land of the living. We hear nothing of Orpheus’ fatal weakness, and her return to Hades. On the other hand, the conclusion has a kind of finality to it with its sarabande of ghosts, lamenting Eurydice’s departure from the underworld. Perhaps the title was meant literally.

The work begins playfully, with the outdoor amusements of Eurydice and her entourage, when she is bitten by a snake and the mood changes. She dies. Charpentier treats the shifting emotions of the female companions and the grief of Orpheus himself with a sensitivity and subtlety, reflecting the intimacy of its first, and possibly only performance in Charpentier’s lifetime. At the beginning of Act Two, when Orpheus arrives in Hades, he is able to use the magical power of his music to ease the suffering of the three classical sinners, Ixion, Tityos, and Tantalus, in a most touching way. The colorfulness, imagination and expressivity of Charpentier’s music is up to his best. The pastoral vein of the opening scene and the spectacle of Hades should give BEMF material for a splendid show, and Charpentier’s psychologically truthful expression the means to go beyond that.

Psychological truth and subtlety in the observation of humanity is one of the key achievements of the Grand Siècle. They bring  the otherwise diverse mentalities of Molière, Corneille, Racine, Quinault, Lully and Charpentier all together in the same space. Gilbert Blin and his collaborators understand this as well as William Christie and Jean-Marie Villégier. Although they pay more scholarly attention to the literal Realien of baroque production, it never distracts them from the inner truth of a theatrical work. In fact this expression of human universals gains in strength throughout the added discipline.

BEMF’s chamber opera is sure to live up to the keen anticipation it has aroused since the beginning. Get your tickets before they are all gone.

About the author

The Editor

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts, an International Journal for the Arts and The Berkshire Review, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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