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"Molière à l'Opéra - Stage music by Jean-Baptiste Lully"

Les Paladins
Dir: Jérôme Correas

rec: Dec 2015, Reims, Opéra
Glossa - GCD 923509 (© 2016) (72'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704): Le Mariage forcé (H 494); Le Sicilien (overture) (H 497); Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687): La Princesse d'Élide (LWV 22) (exc); Le bourgeois gentilhomme (LWV 43) (exc); Les amants magnifiques (LWV 42) (exc); Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (LWV 41) (exc); Pastorale comique (LWV 33) (exc); Psyché (LWV 45) (exc)

Luanda Siqueira, soprano; Jean-François Lombard, Jérôme Billy, tenor; Virgine Ancely, bass; Patrick Oliva, Myriam Mahnane, violin; Benoît Bursztejn, Martha Moore, viola; Nicolas Crnjanski, basse de violon; Charles-Édouard Fantin, theorbo, guitar; Jérôme Correas, harpsichord

Nearly nobody knows Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, but nearly everyone knows Molière. Those names refer to one and the same person, who was the most famous French playwright of the 17th century. Several of his works are still known and are performed in our time. Molière was his stage name, because he was also an actor. Actually, it was in this capacity that he made a name for himself. Thanks to the patronage of aristocrats he could perform before the King at the Louvre. He was allowed to perform plays of his own in the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. His plays were a mixture of elements of the commedia dell'arte and French comedy. They were received well by the public at large and the court, but met criticism from the Church.

Molière has become especially known for his comédies-ballets, which he created in cooperation with Jean-Baptiste Lully. The latter - born as Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence - was just fourteen when he arrived in Paris as garçon de chambre for Anne-Marie-Louise d'Orléans, cousin of Louis XIV, being expected to converse with her in Italian. At the time the Italian culture was quite popular in France, and that included Italian music. When Lully arrived in Paris the central figure was Cardinal Mazarin, also of Italian birth, who invited Italian musicians to promote their music in France. Today Lully is best known for his efforts to develop a true French style in opera, as an alternative to Italian opera. However, between 1657 and 1665 Lully composed music for several ballets on Italian texts. The first was the Ballet de l'Amour malade, of which only a couple of fragments are extant. In 1658 Lully composed a scene for the Ballet d'Alcidiane, again on an Italian text. When Lully started to cooperate with Molière, his composing on Italian texts didn't stop. In 1670 the famous comédie-ballet Le bourgeois gentilhomme was performed, which ends with the 'Ballets des Nations', in which the French, the Italian and the Spaniards are musically depicted. The next year Psyché, called a tragédie-ballet, was performed. The first intermède of this work is also entirely written on an Italian text.

In the ballets which Molière and Lully created together, and in which both also performed themselves as actors, three genres came together: spoken text, music and dance. Between 1661 and 1671 they produced ten pieces. The first was Les fächeux; Lully contributed only a dance, the rest of the music was written by Pierre Beauchamp, another choreographer, dancer and composer with whom Molière collaborated. The last fruit of the cooperation between Molière and Lully was the above-mentioned Psyché. The most famous of their creations is Le bourgeois gentilhomme. In some of their pieces the Sun King took part as a dancer.

After Psyché the collaboration of "les deux Baptiste", as a contemporary called them, ended because of a personal conflict. In the last years of his life Molière worked with Marc-Antoine Charpentier; this resulted in another masterpiece, Le malade imaginaire. Lully continued his career with the foundation of a French opera style, which resulted in the genre of the tragédie-lyrique. Jérôme Corréas, in his notes to the present disc, emphasizes that this genre owns its very existence to the comédies-ballets he created with Molière: "[It] was enough for Lully to remove the spoken dialogues from the 'recipe' that the two had worked out together, and the tragédie lyrique appeared." Whereas the comedies included satirical elements, which was one of the reasons they were criticized by the ecclesiastical authorities, the tragédie-lyrique was different: "Magnificent and heroic, it turned its back on that freedom of tone, that taste for derision and for craziness which had characterized Molière's dramatic works."

Although this disc mentions only the name of Lully on its cover, it also includes excerpts from Le Mariage forcé. This piece was originally written in 1664, with music by Lully. But as it was revived in 1672 Lully's contributions were replaced by music from Charpentier's pen. The rest of the programme includes excerpts from six pieces which were written by Lully and Molière, most of which are hardly known. Although a disc like this includes a useful survey of the genre of the comédie-ballet, the lack of context makes it hard to fully appreciate these excerpts, especially as the booklet does not include synopses of the plays from which they are taken. It would be worth an attempt to perform and record these musical comedies complete. I can't see any other way than a strictly historical approach here. The wonderful DVD production of Le bourgeois gentilhomme by Le Poème Harmonique (Alpha, 2005) is an impressive example.

As long as these pieces are not available in such recordings, we should enjoy this disc of excerpts. The comical elements come off very well, and the singers give a convincing account of their respective roles. The singing is generally very good; the only weakness is the too wide vibrato of Luanda Siqueira. I also don't understand, why French performers still stick to the modern pronunciation of French. Lastly, I wonder whether the performance of the Italian episodes are probably a little too Italian in the way they are performed and a more modest French approach would have been more appropriate.

However, all in all this is a most enjoyable recording. It is especially recommendable to those who have a particular interest in French baroque opera, which has its origins here.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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