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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): Actéon

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

rec: Sept 28 - 30, 2009, Bremen, Studio of Radio Bremen
CPO - 777 613-2 (© 2010) (66'19")

Actéon (H 481); La pierre philosophale (H 501); Orphée descendant aux enfers (H 471)

Lydia Brotherton, Amanda Forsythe, Teresa Wakim, Brenna Wells, soprano; Julie Comparini, Mireille Lebel, contralto; Jason McStoots, haute-contre, tenor; Michael Barrett, Aaron Sheehan, Zachary Wilder, tenor; John Buffett, Tyler Duncan, Olivier Laquerre, Douglas Williams, bass
Sandra Miller, transverse flute; Debra Nagy, recorder, oboe; Kathryn Montoya, recorder, taille d'hautbois; Gonzalo X. Ruiz, oboe; Robert Mealy, Peter Spissky, violin; Laura Jeppesen, viola, viola da gamba; David Morris, basse de violon; Dominic Teresi, bassoon; Paul O'Dette, theorbo; Stephen Stubbs, theorbo, guitar; Avi Stein, harpsichord; Marie-Ange Petit, percussion

The fact that Marc-Antoine Charpentier has left far more sacred than secular music was probably not a matter of choice but rather the result of historical circumstance. He had the bad luck to be a contemporary of Jean-Baptiste Lully who, although of Italian birth, was a staunch defender of the 'true' French style. He totally dominated the realm of opera and didn't allow any possible rivals to shine. Charpentier, who had studied with Carissimi in Rome, was suspect, firstly because of the Italian features in his oeuvre, secondly because of his dramatic talent. That talent comes to the fore in his sacred music, but also in his works with a secular subject.

This disc brings together three specimens of this part of his oeuvre, which bear witness to his theatrical instinct. Charpentier composed just one opera, Médée, but the main work on this disc, Actéon, can be considered a pocket-size opera. Although it is called a pastorale en musique, the autograph manuscript begins with an Ouverture de l'Opéra d'Actéon. It is divided into six scenes, the first five of which all end with an instrumental piece, as was usual in opera.

It is not quite clear whether the work was staged when it was first performed. In fact, it isn't known for sure for what occasion it was written. Charpentier had close ties with Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise, but he was also the favourite composer of the Crown Prince. A private performance at his court is quite possible, also considering the subject of Actéon. It is based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, and tells of Actaeon, a hunter who trying to find a place to rest unexpectedly sees Diana - goddess of chastity - bathing, surrounded by her nymphs. Angry that a mortal has seen her in the nude she takes revenge with a curse: Actaeon is changed into a stag who is then devoured by his own dogs. This subject must have been suitable to perform before the Crown Prince, who was an enthusiastic hunter. It is known that Charpentier himself sang the role of Actaeon.

The recording is based on live and staged performances during the Boston Early Music Festival, and that must have been a good preparation for a lively performance in the recording studio. There is a strong coherence within the vocal ensemble, which sings the choruses, and whose members also perform the solo parts. Aaron Sheehan and Teresa Wakim give very fine accounts of their roles as Actaeon and Diana respectively. Lydia Brotherton, Amanda Forsythe and Mireille Lebel take the roles of the nymphs, and their voices blend excellently. Ms Lebel also sings the role of Juno, who at the end reveals what has happened to Actaeon. The chorus of the hunters which laments about Actaeon's fate is particularly expressive.

Orphée descendant aux enfers has no reference to any genre, but is generally called a cantata, although this genre only came into existence in the early 18th century, as a direct result of the growing influence of the Italian style. This piece could also be a scene from an opera. The myth of Orpheus and Euridice is one of the most famous subjects in 17th- and 18th century operas and cantatas. Charpentier focuses on Orpheus as he descends into the underworld to collect his beloved Euridice, where he meets two criminals, Ixion and Tantalus. The piece opens with a prelude, which is called récit d'Orphée sur le violon. The violin here represents Orpheus' instrument, the lyre. Jason McStoots sings this role whose range requires an hautecontre, a high tenor going well into the alto range with his natural voice, without using the falsetto register. McStoots is alright, but probably could have made a bit more of his part. The small roles of the criminals are sung by Aaron Sheehan and Douglas Williams. The piece ends with a moral: "Once love touches a soul, it can feel no other torments".

La pierre philosophale is an example of music which Charpentier wrote for plays to be performed at the theatre. It is the only music which was to be performed during the play, which deals with the fascination with all things magic in the 17th century. Two choruses of the Four Elements embrace short solos of a gnome girl and a sylph and a duet of water and fire. The choruses again show the good blending of the voices; the soloists are Teresa Wakim, Lydia Brotherton, Zachary Wilder and Olivier Laquerre.

In recent years Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, with their ensembles, have successfully explored French theatrical music of the 17th century. This has resulted in two recordings of operas by Lully for CPO, Thésée and Psyché. With this new recording they have extended their discography with another fine production. The two main works on this disc have been recorded before, but as they are not frequently performed this new recording is welcome, in particular as they are given nice performances. La pierre philosophale seems to have been recorded here for the first time and sheds light on one of the least-known aspects of Charpentier's oeuvre.

The booklet contains an informative essay by Gilbert Blin, who was also the drama coach for the live performances at the Boston Early Music Festival. Pictures from these staged performances are also included. In addition Stephen Stubbs contributes some personal notes on the three works in the programme. All lyrics are given with an English and a German translation.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Boston Early Music Festival

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