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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): Les Plaisirs de Versailles - Les Arts Florissants

Boston Early Music Festival Vocal & Chamber Ensembles
Dir: Paul O'Dette, Stephen Stubbs

rec: Jan 27 - Feb 4, 2019, Bremen, Studio Radio Bremen
CPO - 555 283-2 (© 2019) (75'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Les Arts Florissants (H 487)a; Les Plaisirs de Versailles (H 480)b

Molly Netter (soloa), Margot Rood (soloa), Teresa Wakim (soloab), soprano; Sophie Michaux, Anthea Pichanik, Virginia Warnken (soloab), mezzo-soprano; Brian Giebler, Jason McStoots (soloa), Aaron Sheehan (soloa), tenor; Jesse Blumberg (soloab), Oliver Laquerre, John Taylor Ward (soloa), bass>
Gonzalo X. Ruiz, Kathryn Montoya, recorder, oboe; Dominic Teresi, bass recorder, bassoon; Robert Mealy, Cynthia Roberts, violin; Sarah Darling, viola; Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba; Phoebe Carrai, cello; Paul O'Dette, theorbo; Stephen Stubbs, theorbo, guitar; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord, organ

The royal palace in Versailles was much more than the home of Louis XIV and his successors. It was also a centre of entertainment on an almost daily basis. It included theatres, concert halls and small rooms for intimate music making. There was something to enjoy for everybody present, from large-scale opera to chamber music, sacred motets and secular cantatas. However, opera - and, more generally, music for the stage - played a central role in musical entertainment. In addition to performances of complete operas with costumes and scenery, smaller-scale pieces such as pastorales and musical idylles were performed. Two of such works are the subject of the present disc.

That is to say: their form refers to the kind of music performed at the court. Marc-Antoine Chapentier never enjoyed a position at the court of Louis XIV, despite his attempts to commend himself. Les Plaisirs de Versailles may have been intended to show that he was able to write other music than sacred works. In the Mémoire of 1726, which was put together before the sale of Charpentier's manuscripts to the Royal Library, this work is described as a "piece for the apartments of the king". The term Appartements refers to the Soirées d'Appartements, evening gatherings held at least three times a week during the Winter season. Soon the word appartement was used to refer to such events. And Les Plaisirs de Versailles, which has the character of a divertissement may have been intended to be performed at such an occasion.

Interestingly, its content gives us an insight into the character of such entertainments. A contemporary described them as "a feast or celebration, which the king gives to regale his court on some evenings (...) with music, balls, dance, meals, games, and other magnificent entertainments". The action of Les Plaisirs de Versailles is set in the Royal Palace. The main characters are two of the Pleasures (Les Plaisirs): Music (La Musique) and Conversation (La Conversation). Music aims at entertaining the king, but is interrupted by the arrival of Conversation. This character represents one of the main features of French society in Louis XIV's time: the art of conversation. A bickering of the two main characters starts; Music calls Conversation a blabbermouth, whereas the latter says that listening to music is "to waste time on trifles". One of the other Pleasures asks for the mediation of Comus, who offers wine, cakes and chocolate, and - when that is to no avail - of Games (Le Jeu), who suggests they should gamble to settle their argument. At the end of the fourth scene, Music and Conversation are reconciled: Music reveals that she just wanted to poke fun at Conversation, in order to entertain the king.

Although Les Plaisirs de Versailles was intended for a performance at the court, there is no evidence that such a performance actually did take place. If it was not performed, the Sun King and his entourage have missed out on a very nice piece of musical entertainment. Charpentier is one of those composers who are just unable to put a foot wrong in their compositions, and this work is evidence of that. Both the vocal and the instrumental part are of excellent quality, and Charpentier is even able to communicate the humorous features to an audience of a different time, which many composers of comedies have not managed to achieve. Teresa Wakim and Virginia Warnken realise the quarrels of the two main characters very well. The other parts are given equally fine performances.

The second work, Les Arts Florissants, is called an opera but requires only a small instrumental ensemble of two treble viols, two recorders and basso continuo. In that respect it is not comparable with the operas by Charpentier's contemporary, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Gilbert Blin, in his liner-notes, suggests that "it is more than probable the Les Arts Florissants was first conceived with the Appartements in mind." However, in this case it is almost sure that it was not performed at the palace, as the manuscript bears the names of singers who were in the service of Mlle de Guise, for whom Charpentier worked a number of years and who had her own chapel.

The story of the opera concerns the eponymous Arts (music, poetry, painting, architecture), shown flourishing under the beneficent and peaceful reign of Louis XIV, as they and a group of warriors become drawn into a dispute between the central characters of Peace (La Paix) and Discord (La Discorde). After a brief struggle in which Discord and his Furies gain the upper hand, Peace appeals to Jupiter to intervene on her behalf. Discord and his followers are chased back into Hades by a hail of thunderbolts, and Peace holds sway once more. In particular Scene 2 is quite dramatic, both in the vocal and the instrumental parts. That comes off here very well. The performers manage to bring out the dramatic aspects without any exaggeration or trying to turn it into a real drama. This is courtly entertainment, after all.

It is nice that in recent years the interest in Charpentier's music is not confined anymore to his Te Deum, some of his Leçons de Ténèbres or his opera Médée. There is still much to discover in his oeuvre that is hardly known, but deserves to be performed and recorded. This disc is a meaningful addition to the discography. Overall I am happy with these performances, even though now and then a bit too much vibrato creeps in in some of the voices. My main disappointment is the use of modern pronunciation. I find it hard to understand why the historically correct French pronunciation of Latin in sacred music is generally adopted, whereas only very few performers use historically correct pronunciation of French.

That said, this aspect should not withhold anyone from including this disc into his collection. This is musical entertainment at its very best, thanks to the composer and to the performers.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Boston Early Music Festival

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