musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Les Caractères de la Danse"

Orchestre de l'Opéra Royal
Dir: Reinhard Goebel

rec: Feb 2 - 6, 2021, Versailles, Opéra Royal
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS055 (© 2022) (70'06")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Christoph Willibald von GLUCK (1714-1787): Orphée et Euridyce (ouverture; pantomime; maestoso; air de Furies; ballet des Ombres heureuses; air vif); Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687): Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (ouverture; Les Maîtres à danser; Canaries pour les mêmes; l'Entrée: marche; réjouissance: chaconne italienne); Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Idomeneo (KV 367) (ballet music: chaconne pour le ballet; larghetto pour Madame Hartig; la chaconne, qui reprend; pas seul de Mr Le Grand); Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Pygmalion (ouverture; air des différents caractères; gavotte gracieuse; menuet; gavotte gaie; chaconne vive; loure très grave; passepied vif; rigaudon vif; sarabande; tambourin); air gay); Jean-Féry REBEL (1666-1747): Les Caractères de la Danse

One of the features of European music during the 17th century was the antagonism between the Italian and the French styles. There were quite some differences between them, but opera was the main battlefield. Louis XIV appointed Jean-Baptiste Lully to lay the foundation of a truly French opera, which was different from its Italian counterpart. One of the differences between them was the role of the dance. Dances were played everywhere, and the development of dancing skills was part of the education of the higher echelons of society since the Renaissance. However, whereas dances in Italian opera were merely played, or used for an aria, in French opera they were used for dancing. No opera performance was complete without a number of dances. In his early years, Louis XIV liked to participate in opera ballets himself. Such ballets continued to be a fixed part of French opera from Lully to Rameau.

In the recording reviewed here, they are both represented with suites from operas. The programme starts with instrumental movements from Lully's best-known work, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, based on a piece by the then most famous playwright in France, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better-known as Molière. Dances were mostly connected to a scene in the opera or a character or group of characters. Hence Les Maîtres à danser and Canaries pour les mêmes. Two bassi ostinati were particularly popular in France: the chaconne and the passacaille. One of these was a part of any opera, mostly towards the close. Here the suite ends with réjouissance: chaconne italienne.

The art of dancing was given so much importance that in 1661 the Académie Royale de Danse was founded. It resulted in a professionalisation of dancing, and the notation of dance steps and arm movements. Whereas at first dancers were all male, from 1681 women also started to participate in opera ballets. The first time a female dancer acted solo in a ballet was in the performance of Les Caractères de la Danse by Jean-Féry Rebel, a pupil of Lully. It is a catalogue of dances which soon developed into a competition piece for dancers. The dances in this piece are very short: the fourteen dances together just take a little under ten minutes. After a prelude we hear such dances as the courante, the bourrée, the menuet and the gavotte, and obviously a chaconne had to be included.

Jean-Philippe Rameau, the main opera composer of the mid-18th century, was an innovator, for instance in the field of instrumentation. In his operas dance still plays a major part, but the dances are more closely connected to the storyline, and the dancers often actually express a character and his or her feelings. Here we get a suite of twelve dances from his opera Pygmalion, first performed in 1748. This work is called a acte de ballet, and is based on a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Christoph Willbald von Gluck was another innovator. He wanted to get rid of the opera seria, with its endless dacapo arias. He was an advocate of a more 'natural' style. Orfeo et Euridice is his most famous work and an expression of his ideals. It was for the Paris performance of his opera, under the title of Orphée et Euridice, which took place in 1774, that he added some dances. They had little in common with the dances that French audiences expected to see and hear. The dance of the Furies is the most notable example. For the closing stage of the opera performance he also wrote a chaconne, which Reinhard Goebel, in his liner-notes, calls "failed". It has not been included here.

The disc ends with Mozart, who also visited Paris, in 1778. Whether he attended opera performances and these inspired him to add ballet music to his opera Idomeneo, premiered in Munich in 1781, is apparently not known. It may also have to do with the fact that the libretto was an adaptation of a French text that had been set by André Campra (1712). Goebel mentions that Mozart in the final chaconne quotes Gluck's chaconne from Orphée et Euridice, "but then, in the rest of his composition, he goes further than any possible model and develops the movement into a large multi-part ballet with solo, pas de deux and tutti scenes." With Mozart's ballet, the journey through the history of the dance in opera comes to a close.

The music on this disc is all pretty well-known, and I personally would have wished a more adventures choice of music. However, it certainly serves the aim of showing how the dance in French opera developed. It is a bit of a surprise that the suite by Lully is played by the same forces as Gluck and Mozart, meaning an orchestra of Italian constitution, with violas in the middle. At that time the French opera orchestra was divided into five parts, and the middle voices were allocated to three different string instruments. The later the music was written, the better it comes off here. Rameau and especially Gluck and Mozart are perfectly realised, with some marked dynamic accents. The dramatic power of Gluck's dance of the Furies is fully explored and there is a good contrast with the ensuing Dance of the Blessed Spirits. The performance of Mozart's ballet music to Idomeneo guarantees for a cracking finale.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Orchestre de l'Opéra de Versailles

CD Reviews