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"Comédie et Tragédie - Orchestral music for the theatre, Volume 2"

Tempesta di Mare
Dir: Gwyn Roberts, Richard Stone

rec: June 8 - 10, 2015, Philadelphia, PA, Curtis Institute of Music, Gould Recital Hall
Chandos - CHAN 0810 (© 2016) (73'29")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704): Le malade imaginaire (H 495), comédie-ballet (suite for orchestra); Jean-Marie LECLAIR (1697-1764): Scylla et Glaucus, opéra-tragédie (suite for orchestra); Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Les Fêtes de Polymnie, ballet héroïque

Justin Bland, Timothy Will, Douglas Wilson, trumpet; Gwyn Roberts, Eve Friedman, Aik Shin Tan, transverse flute; Debra Nagy, Stephen Bard, oboe; Anna Marsh, bassoon; Emlyn Ngai, Karina Schmitz, Edmond Chan, Rebecca Harris, Christof Richter, Elissa Wagman, Mandy Wolman, violin; Daniela Giulia Pierson, Fran Berge, Amy Leonard, Karina Schmitz, viola; Lisa Terry, Eve Miller, Karie Rietman, cello; Heather Miller Lardin, Anne Peterson, double bass, violone; Richard Stone, William Simms, theorbo, guitar; Adam Pearl, harpsichord; Michelle Humphreys, percussion

Around 1600 opera was born in Italy; it was to become one of the main musical genres in history. The first operas were performed at the courts of aristocrats: Monteverdi's L'Orfeo had its premiere at the court in Mantua. It could only rise to its later status after the first public opera houses being built in Venice. They offered Francesco Cavalli the opportunity to write and perform a large number of operas. During the 17th century the Italian style disseminated across Europe and so did opera. Under Cardinal Mazarin - himself of Italian birth - six Italian operas were performed in Paris between 1645 and 1662, among them Cavalli's Xerse. The latter even composed an opera specifically for Paris (L'Ercole amante), as did before him Luigi Rossi (L'Orfeo). But after the death of Mazarin the Sun King Louis XIV wanted to establish a truly French opera; ironically it was the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully who was made responsible for this. In 1672 the Académie Royale de Musique was founded and here most operas by Lully and by composers of later generations were performed. It continued to play a major role at the French opera scene until 1793 when it was disbanded by the Convention Nationale.

Among the features of French opera was the inclusion of ballet. This was a major part of the pursuits of French aristocracy and the great passion of Louis XIV himself who often participated in performances of Lully's operas as a dancer. This explains why orchestras can perform suites of instrumental pieces from French operas, in contrast to Italian operas which include hardly any instrumental music. In 2014 the American ensemble Tempesta di Mare started a series of discs with instrumental suites from operas of the 17th and 18th centuries. The first was released in 2015 and included suites from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme by Lully and Marin Marais' Alcyone, together with Les Elémens, a simphonie nouvelle by Rebel which was also first performed in the Opéra. The composers represent three stages in the history of French opera: although Marais and Rebel were both pupils of Lully they are of different generations.

The present disc includes music from two generations: Charpentier was a contemporary of Lully and represents the early stages of French opera with Le malade imaginaire, whereas the stage works by Leclair and Rameau are from the 1740s. They also represent three different genres.

Le Malade imaginaire is a comédie-ballet on a libretto by Molière. Originally this was a combination of ballet and spoken comedy. Molière played a key role in the development of the genre. In the preface to Les fâcheux (1661) he stated that his artistic aim was for a more integrated spectacle, one in which vocal music and dance complemented the principal intrigue conveyed through the spoken dialogue. Between 1663 and 1670 he closely cooperated with Lully and during this period music was given a more prominent role. This development resulted in their masterpiece Le bourgeois gentilhomme. It lives up to Molière's ideal: a comedy mixed with music and dances. But as the two men became divided Molière turned to Marc-Antoine Charpentier and their cooperation resulted in Le Malade imaginaire. It was also Molière's last work: after the fourth performance in which he played the title role he died. Charpentier had written a prologue in the expectation that the premiere would take place at court but that was not the case. The first performance was on 10 February 1673 at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. After the death of Molière Le Malade imaginaire was continued to be performed, until late in 1685. In the previous years Charpentier had to adapt the piece time and again as a result of the restrictions to which Louis XIV - at the instigation of Lully - subjected staged performances by other companies than Lully's Académie Royale de Musique. Tempesta di Mare plays the overture and nine other instrumental pieces from this work.

Jean-Marie Leclair has become best known for his music for the violin, his own instrument. He was educated as a violinist and dancer. It was only later that he decided to fully concentrate on a career as a violinist, probably after a sojourn in Turin where he worked as a ballet-master and took up violin lessons with Giovanni Battista Somis. After his return he published his first volume with violin sonatas. Three further volumes were printed in the next decades and in addition he composed trio sonatas and solo concertos. Only one work for the stage from his pen is known, Scylla et Glaucus, an opéra-tragédie. However, it is known that he wrote quite some ballet music and music for divertissements but that has all been lost. Depite being called an opéra-tragédie Leclair's Scylla et Glaucus fits in the tradition of the tragédie-lyique or tragédie en musique which had been founded by Lully. Every such piece was in five acts and was preceded by a prologue whose content had no direct connection to the story of the opera but was used to sing the praises of the monarch, in Lully's time Louis XIV. This element is additional token that the genre of the tragédie en musique was inextricably linked with the court and the Académie Royale de Musique. Under the rule of Louis XV such allegorical prologues had gradually disappeared but when Scylla et Glaucus was performed, it made a comeback, due to the circumstances of the state and the monarchy. In February 1745 Louis XV's son, the Dauphin, had married the Spanish Infanta María Teresa Rafaela. In May of that year the king gained victory at the Battle of Fontenoy which turned the tables in France's favour in the War of the Austrian Succession and Louis XV also enjoyed recovery from serious illness. No wonder that these happy events resulted in composers celebrating "Louis le bienaimé" (Louis the beloved), as he was called. Jean-Philippe Rameau contributed several stage works, among them Les Fêtes de Polymnie, a suite from which closes the present disc.

Leclair's Scylla et Glaucus was first performed in October 1746; the libretto was from the pen of someone called d'Albaret, about whom nothing is known, and based on Ovid's Metamorphoses. Despite a positive review in the Mercure the audiences didn't embrace Leclair's opera. In his liner-notes to a recent recording of Scylla et Glaucus Benoît Dratwicki is not able to figure out why it wasn't a success. He especially points out the quality of the instrumental score. That is something the listener to the present disc can experience himself in the suite which Tempesta di Mare has recorded. There is quite some variety in the scoring. The brilliance of the string writing cannot come as a surprise but there are also nice parts for the transverse flute and the suite also includes movements with trumpets and timpani, for instance the Symphonie pour la descente de Vénus.

The disc ends with Rameau's Les Fêtes de Polymnie, a ballet-héroïque in a prologue and three entrées. This was a specific genre which differed from both the opéra-ballet and the tragédie en musique. In contrast to the former its main characters were heroic, noble figures, often from antiquity rather than comic bourgeois characters. It differs from the latter in that the story is of a festive nature and is devoid of dramatic or terrifying events. That way Les Fêtes de Polymnie was perfectly suited to be part of the celebrations of 1745/46. At the same time he composed a comédie-ballet (La Princesse de Navarre), a fête royale (Le Temple de la Gloire) and an acte de ballet (Les Fêtes de Ramire). Les Fêtes de Polymnie was first performed at the Académie Royale de Musique in October 1745; eight years later it was repeated. The libretto is from the pen of Louis de Cahusac who also wrote the libretti for operas such as Zaïs and Zoroastre. The prologue is an ode to Louis XV, and the three entrées - entitled La Fable, L'Histoire and La Féerie - tell separate stories which are connected as all celebrate the king's military victories from different angles. La Tempesta di Mare offers 13 instrumental pieces, including the overture; this seems a selection of what would be available. The tracklist of the recent recording by György Vashegyi (Glossa, 2015) shows that there are many more instrumental pieces. This suite bears witness to the fact that the role of instrumental music had changed since the days of Lully. The dances are much more an integral part of the story rather than a kind of interruption offering an opportunity for dancing. Here one can also admire Rameau's art of orchestration.

A disc like this can be highly entertaining. It is not an original concept; especially Rameau's operas have often been the subject of recordings of orchestral suites, for instance by Frans Brüggen, Sigiswald Kuijken and Gustav Leonhardt, to mention only a few. Unfortunately this disc - like the previous one - offers only a shimmer of what could have been. As I have noted in my review of the first volume, Tempesta di Mare does not make use of the string instruments which were common in France at the time. But that is not the main problem. It is especially annoying that the playing is so lacklustre and lacks imagination. It is rather lifeless and colourless; the pieces with a more abundant scoring, such as those including brass and timpani, come off best. Here and there a movement is really played well but all in all this disc is a rather disappointing affair. Even if we take into account that restraint was one of the features of French culture under the ancien régime this music should be played with more theatrical flair. That certainly goes for Rameau whose music is notably influenced by the Italian style.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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