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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): La Descente d'Orphée aux enfers (H 488)

Jeanne Crousaud (Œnone), Dagmar Saskova (Aréthuze), Céline Scheen (Eurydice), Maïlys de Villoutreys (Daphné), soprano; Floriane Hasler (Proserpine), mezzo-soprano; Cyril Auvity (Orphée), François-Nicolas Geslot, Kevin Skelton (Ixion), haute-contre; Guillaume Gutierrez (Tantale), tenor; Etienne Bazola (Pluton), baritone; Virgile Ancely (Apollon, Titye), David Witczak, bass
Ensemble Desmarest
Dir: Ronan Khalil

rec: June & July 2017, Poissy, Théâtre
Glossa - GCD 923602 (© 2018) (60'45")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sophie Ardiet, recorder, transverse flute; Diana Baroni, transverse flute; Reynier Guerrero, Simon Pierre, violin; Robin Pharo, Ronald Martin Alonso, viola da gamba; Julien Hainsworth, basse de violon; Mathieu Serrano, violone; Romain Falik, theorbo; Josep Maria Marti, theorbo, guitar; Loris Barrucano, Ronan Khalil, harpsichord; Raphael Mas, percussion

In the second half of the 17th century the music scene in Paris was dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully. In particular in the field of opera he tolerated no competition. Marc Trautmann, in his liner-notes to the present disc, rightly calls him "greedy, inflexible and jealous" and observes that he "imposed an exorbitant exclusivity worthy of the harshest modern-day software publisher". Marc-Antoine Charpentier was one of those composers who suffered under Lully's regime. Arguably the more talented of the two, he was never given any position at the court. For a number of years he was in the service of Mademoiselle de Guise, who owned a musical establishment of her own, for which Charpentier wrote a considerable number of sacred and secular works. The work recorded by the Ensemble Desmarest, La Descente d'Orphée aux enfers, is one of them.

Musicologists debate the question how to call this piece. Considering the strict frameworks imposed on the various genres at the time, it can hardly be counted among the then common forms. It could probably be called a pastorale héroïque, if it had three acts, but this work comprises only two. The question, then, is: what is the reason for that? There are different views on this matter. Some believe that Charpentier did indeed compose a third act, but that this has been lost. An argument in favour of this option is that the tragic ending of the story - Orpheus losing his beloved Eurydice for good - is missing. However, maybe this was intentional; if that is the case, those who believe there never has been a third act, may be correct. In a recording by the Boston Early Music Festival Vocal & Instrumental Ensembles, directed by Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, it is given the name of pastorale en musique. That could well be the most accurate description of this work.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice was frequently taken as the subject of compositions of various kinds in Italy. In fact, the very first operas in history are about this story: Giulio Caccini and Jacopo Peri both composed an opera with the title Euridice, which both were performed in 1600. They were followed in 1607 by Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. In France it was another Italian who took it as the subject of an opera: in 1647 Luigi Rossi performed his Orfeo in Paris. But French composers apparently felt not greatly attracted to this subject; in the oeuvre of Lully we don't find a single work about Orpheus and Euridice. Charpentier himself had written a piece with the same title as the work recorded here: the cantata Orphée descendant aux enfers (H 477) of 1683. The present work dates from three years later and was scored for ten voices. The names of the performers and their roles are known. Charpentier himself, who was an haute-contre, sang the role of Ixion. The soloists also took care of the choruses. The present recording is in line with this practice.

Charpentier indicates the instruments to be involved, but probably does not specify when and where they have to participate. If that is indeed left to the discretion of the performers, this could explain the differences between the various recordings in this respect, for instance between the present recording and that by the Ensemble Correspondances, directed by Sébastien Daucé. What one prefers, is a matter of taste. However, Khalil has taken the freedom to add percussion to the ensemble. The use of percussion instruments was probably never explicitly indicated at the time, but I can't see the need to use them here. The percussion is brought into action at the moment Euridice is bitten by a snake. Apparently the reason is to make it more dramatic, but Daucé's recording shows that this is dramatic enough in itself; there is no need of any percussion here. The same goes for other moments where percussion is used, such as in the Choir of Nymphs and Shepherds (track 7) and the ensuing Entrée of the latter. An additional reason to avoid percussion is that this piece was intended for a performance in the intimacy of the household of Mademoiselle de Guise, and not in the Opéra.

That is also my problem with the performance by Cyril Auvity, especially in the first act, where he is too extroverted and too loud. Daucé's Orpheus, Robert Getchell, is preferable here. In the second act Auvity makes a better impression. However, from a stylistic point of view I prefer Getchell all the same, also because Auvity uses a bit too much vibrato. Some other singers are also guilty of that, and as a result the ensembles and choruses in the first act are not entirely satisfying; here again the second act is better. Among the soloists Kevin Skelton, Virgile Ancely and Etienne Bazola stand out.

In addition to the use of percussion there are some other oddities. One of the weirdest is Orpheus' récit in the second act (track 18), in which he asks Pluto to set Euridice free ('Je ne viens point ici'). When he sings "Under my fingers my lyre is stunned into silence, incapable of representing the savagery of my stress", he is accompanied by a harpsichord. This instrument has nothing to do with the lyre; one would rather expect a lute or theorbo here. But what is even stranger is that he sings that his lyre is "stunned into silence", but the harpsichord continues playing. What is the point? Khalil also decided to add instrumental movements where the score apparently does not indicate it. Almost needless to say, unfortunately, is that the pronunciation is modern, just as in the performances by Daucé and O'Dette/Stubbs. I still don't see any real progress in this part of performance practice.

This performance has some good things to offer. I have already mentioned Auvity's performance in the second act and the contributions of several other singers. However, on balance I prefer Daucé's recording. It does more justice to the intimate character of this work and the conditions, under which it was performed in Charpentier's time. It also has a stronger consistency in regard to the performances of the singers, and the instrumental parts are closer to the composer's intentions.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Etienne Bazola
Jeanne Crousaud
Guillaume Gutierrez
Dagmar Saskova
Kevin Skelton
Guillaume Gutierrez

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