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

Ensemble Correspondances
Dir: Sébastien Daucé

rec: Jan 2016, Grenoble, MC2
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902279 (© 2017) (54'52")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Caroline Arnaud (Aréthuse, Proserpine), Violaine Le Chenadec (Daphné), Caroline Dangin-Bardot (Œnone), Caroline Weynants (Euridyce), soprano; Lucile Richardot, mezzo-soprano; Stephen Collardelle (Ixion), Robert Getchell (Orphée), haute-contre; Davy Cornillot (Tantale), tenor; Etienne Bazola (Apollon, Titye), baritone; Nicolas Brooymans (Pluton), bass
Lucile Perret, Matthieu Bertaud, recorder; Béatrice Linon, Josèphe Cottet, violin; Mathilde Vialle, Lucile Boulanger, Myriam Rignol, viola da gamba; Antoine Touche, bass violin; Thibaut Roussel, Diego Salamanca, theorbo; Arnaud de Pasquale, harpsichord; Sébastien Daucé, organ

It seems unlikely that I am alone in ranking Marc-Antoine Charpentier among the greatest composers of the 17th century. He is one of those masters of music, who seemed just unable to write any music which is less than interesting and is mostly simply brilliant. His music is a perfect mixture of French elegance and fluency on the one hand and Italian monody and sense of drama on the other. The tragedy of these goûts-réunis avant la lettre is that he was never given the opportunity to compose operas. That was due to the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was given the task of developing a truly French style, especially in the realm of opera. The fact that Charpentier was strongly influenced by the Italian style, worked against him. Charpentier had to express his talents in other kinds of music, in particular sacred works, which he composed either for the principal Jesuit church in Paris, St Louis, or for the musical establishment of Mademoiselle de Guise.

The latter was a great admirer of the Italian style. Her father had been suspected of conspiracy by Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister from 1624 to 1642, and went into exile. For twelve years he lived in Florence with his family, and here Mademoiselle de Guise's musical taste was formed. She heard oratorios of the kind which were written by Giacomo Carissimi, who was probably also Charpentier's teacher during his stay in Rome. Her small chapel not only performed sacred music, but also secular works, among them divertissements.

La Descente d'Orphée is called an opera in the liner-notes to the present disc. 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. These notes to these two recordings also show some differences in the interpretation of the fact that this work comprises only two acts. It ends with Orpheus returning to the world of the living followed by Euridice. The moment when he looks at her and loses her forever, is not included. Gilbert Blin, in his notes to the CPO recording, suggests that this would have been part of the seemingly intended third act. It is also notable that the score includes no indication of the end nor, as is often the case in Charpentier's works, a count of the total number of bars. However, Thomas Leconte, in his liner-notes to the present disc, points out that "it is possible (...) to envisage the hypothesis that Charpentier consciously intended this conclusion, which leaves the myth, as it were, in suspense, without the edifying moral resolution which the men of letters of the time were generally so fond of. For the work does possess a genuin musical conclusion, in the yearning Sarabande légère danced by the Shades deploring the departure of Orpheus, who leaves them only 'so sweet a memory' of his songs. (...) If this ending is indeed deliberate, the work assumes a particular emphasis and may be read as an optimistic interpretation of the myth, which is considered more as an allegory of the union of body and soul. A symbol of the fragility of humanity, but also of its ability to surpass itself in defiance of the ineluctable laws of nature, Charpentier's Orpheus thus embodies the full creative force that the power of love can elicit, and, finally, in a humanistic ideal, also represents the perfection that the human soul can attain through art."

It is interesting to note that, whereas the Orpheus myth was often taken as the subject of compositions in Italy, in France only a very few pieces before Charpentier were devoted to the story. One of them was a short piece by Charpentier himself, the cantata Orphée descendant aux enfers (H 477) of 1683. The opera was written three years later and performed by an ensemble of ten singers. The names of the performers and their roles are known. Charpentier himself, who was an hautecontre, sang the role of Ixion. The soloists also took care of the choruses. The present recording is in line with this practice.

The two most famous Orpheus operas are those by Monteverdi and Gluck. Charpentier's account of the story is different, not only because of its ending. Although the influence of what he had heard and learnt in Italy is clearly noticeable, this work is much more restrained. An Italian contemporary of Charpentier would have treated the moment Euridice is bitten by a snake very differently. That does not mean that this work lacks expression. However, it is expression of a different kind. Harmony is one of the means Charpentier uses to depict the emotions of the protagonists, especially in the ensembles and choruses. That said, there are some quite striking moments. One is the chorus of Furies, 'Il n'est rien aux Enfers', where the phrases are alternately set in a dramatic and a more intimate way, which creates strong contrasts, in line with the text. Another notable passage is the solo of Orpheus, 'Je ne viens point ici'. He is always supported by two viole da gamba, with a third viol in the basso continuo. But when he sings "My lyre falls mute beneath my fingers, it can no longer express my bitter torment", the two obbligato viols literally fall silent, and the accompaniment is reduced to the basso continuo.

I already mentioned the CPO recording; I was pretty pleased with it. However, it is surpassed by the present recording. The singers here are all native French speakers, and that makes a notable difference. Unfortunately they use modern pronunciation, as did the singers in the CPO recording. I find that very regrettable, and I wonder, why interpreters are still resisting the use of historical pronunciation. It is not only part of historical performance practice, but it also makes much sense from a strictly musical point of view. That said, it is hard to imagine a better and more idiomatic performance of this work than we get here. Obviously Robert Getchell plays a crucial role; his sensitive interpretation of the role of Orpheus is highly admirable and a joy to listen to. Nicolas Brooymans avoids making a caricature of Pluto. Caroline Arnaud touches the right chord in her attempts to convince him to give in to Orpheus's request. The choruses and ensembles are excellent, also thanks to the perfect blending of the voices. I already noticed on other occasions that stylistic consistency is one of the features of this ensemble. All the singers act at the same wavelength. I should not forget to mention the fine contributions of the instrumentalists.

This disc is a real treasure, as it shows the dramatic qualities of Charpentier and the performance is little less than ideal.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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