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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): "Orphée aux enfers"

Vox Luminis (Lionel Meunier); A Nocte Temporis (Reinoud Van Mechelen)

rec: Feb 2019, Huldenberg (B), Kloosterkapel Keyhof
Alpha - 566 (© 2020) (82'22")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score H 471

La descente d'Orphée aux enfers (H 488); Orphée descendant aux enfers (H 471)

[VL] Clara Coutouly, Zsuzsi Tóth, Stefanue True, dessus; Victoria Cassano, bas-dessus; Raphael Höhn, haute-contre; Philippe Froeliger, taille; Lionel Meunier, basse-taille; Geoffroy Buffière, basse
[ANT] Déborah Cachet, dessus; Reinoud Van Mechelen, haute-contre; Morgane Eouzan, recorder, transverse flute; Anna Besson, transverse flute; Emmanuel Resche, Annelies Decock, violin.; Ronan Kernoa, viola da gamba, bass violin; Sofie Vanden Eynde, theorbo; Amthony Romaniuk, harpsichord, organ

Today, Marc-Antoine Charpentier is considered one of the geniuses of the 17th century. He is one of those composers who apparently were unable to put a foot wrong in what they created. His music is frequently performed: his Te Deum is one of the evergreens of baroque repertoire, some of his Lamentations and his masses as well as some oratorios are pretty well-known too. His opera Médée is considered a masterpiece. However, this same work refers to what is the great tragedy of his life: the fact that this is his only opera.

It was not that he did not want to compose any more music for the theatre, but he was not given the chance. The opera scene of his time was completely dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully, who had been given the task of creating a purely French style in opera, as an alternative to the Italian opera, which was embraced across Europe. It was not just that Lully saw Charpentier as a serious competitor, but he was also poisened with the Italian taste, the effect of his studies in Rome, where he had come under the spell of the oeuvre of Giacomo Carissimi. This resulted in a style of composing which was at odds with the ideals of Lully and his employer, Louis XIV himself.

It was a matter of good fortune that Charpentier was not alone in his admiration of the Italian style. There were some music lovers and even compossers, who were receptive to what came from Italy or even preferred the Italian idiom. One of them was Marie de Lorraine, Duchess of Guise and Princess of Joinville, who - with her father and the rest of her family - had lived in Italy and had become a great admirer of Italian music. During the 1680s Charpentier was in her service, and her fine chapel of singers and players offered him the opportunity to perform some of his best works.

Among them was the cantata which is the first work at the present disc. Orphée descendant aux enfers, dating from 1684, is a cantata on one of the most popular subjects of songs, cantatas and operas throughout history: Orpheus, the brilliant singer, who goes to the Underworld to bring back his beloved Euridice to the world of the living. He became the symbol of the power of music as well as constancy in love. This cantata focuses on a particular episode of the mythological tale: Orpheus' meeting with the two evildoers Ixion and Tantalus, whose pain Orpheus is able to soothe with his music. The main part of this piece is the magnificent and moving récit of Orpheus, 'Effroyables enfers' in which he begs the Underworld to give him back Euridice. In this piece Reinoud Van Mechelen already shows his command of the French style and his involvement in the story of Orpheus.

This part is for the typical French voice type of haute-contre. Charpentier often wrote particularly beautiful parts for this kind of voice, which can not come as a surprise, as he was an haute-contre himself. However, in the other work on this disc, La descente d'Orphée aux enfers, he did not sing the title role, but rather the role of Ixion. This work dates from 1686 or 1687 and was again performed in Mlle de Guise's household. It is called a miniature opera in the booklet, others have characterised it as a pastorale en musique. It comprises only two acts. It ends with Orpheus returning to the world of the living followed by Euridice. The moment when he looks at her and loses her forever, is not included. There are different opinions on this. Some believe that Charpentier has written a third act, which has been lost. Others tend to think that the omission of the concluding tragic episode of the story was deliberate.

Charpentier may have been under Italian influence, that does not mean that this is a purely Italian work. An Italian composer would have set this subject in a more dramatic, theatrical way. Charpentier's setting is more restrained, but that is probably also due to the performing circumstances. Although the manuscript indicates that it was staged during the performance at Mlle de Guise's palace, the surroundings were certainly more intimate than that of the opera stage. That does not mean that this piece lacks expression or tension - far from it. Harmony is one of the means Charpentier uses to depict the emotions of the protagonists. The main role shows a growing intensity and urgency, and this is magnificently realised by Reinoud Van Mechelen, who adapts his singing eloquently to the circumstances. Geoffroy Buffière convincingly portrays Apollo, who has to answer to the plea of Orpheus. The other roles are equally well sung.

In recent years several recordings of this work have been released. I especially like the recording of the Ensemble Correspondances, directed by Sébastien Daucé. The present performance is just as good, but there are two not unimportant differences. First, Daucé only offers the longest work; the cantata is not included. Second, his singers use modern pronunciation, whereas Reinoud Van Mechelen and the members of Vox Luminis sing in historical pronunciation. I am not saying that the latter recording is preferable, but for those with a more than average interest in Charpentier and in French baroque music in general, this Alpha production seems an indispensable addition to their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

A Nocte Temporis
Vox Luminis

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