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Concert reviews

MA Charpentier: Les Arts Florissants (H 487) a; La descente d'Orphée aux enfers (H 488) b

Les Arts Florissants
Sophie Daneman (La Paixa, Euridiceb), Sunhae Im (La Poésiea, Daphnéb), Olga Pitarch (La Musiquea, Enoneb, Proserpineb), soprano; Katalin Károlyi (L'Architecturea, Aréthuseb), mezzosoprano; Paul Agnew (Orphéeb), Cyril Auvity (La Peinturea, Ixionb), Jean-Yves Ravoux (Chorusa, Tantaleb), tenor; Nicolas Rivenq (La Discordea, Apollonb, Tityeb), baritone; Joao Fernandes (Un Guerriera, Plutonb)
Dir: William Christie

concert: Utrecht, Jan 16, 2004

It is one of the ironies of music history that the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully made a huge career in France by trying to be more French than the French, whereas the Frenchman Marc-Antoine Charpentier went to Rome to learn the art of composing from Giacomo Carissimi. The irony turns into tragedy when one realises that the most dramatic of these two composers, Charpentier, never really got the opportunity to compose and perform operas because of the domination of the Parisian stage by Lully. Charpentier's only opera, Médée, was performed in 1693, six years after the death of Lully.

Charpentier used his sense for drama abundantly in his sacred music, but also in the incidental music he composed for a number of plays performed by the Comédie Française, to which he had been introduced by Molière, who asked him to compose the interludes for Le malade imaginaire and the revival of Le mariage forcé.

The two works performed by the ensemble Les Arts Florissants under the direction of William Christie also demonstrated the dramatic talent of Charpentier.

The first work on the programme was Les Arts Florissants, the idylle en musique from which the ensemble took its name. This work belongs to the category of musical allegories, which present a story - mostly from antique mythology - as a tribute to a royal person. In this case that person was the French king Louis XIV, although Charpentier didn't compose it for the royal court, but for the ensemble of Marie de Lorraine, the Duchess of Guise, in whose service he spent a considerable part of his life.
Les Arts Florissants is an allegory on the power of the arts: Music (La Musique) and Poetry (La Poésie) praise Louis for bringing peace, whereas Painting (La Peinture) - a role which Charpentier himself sang at the first performance - considers himself hardly good enough to paint the greatness of the king. Conflict (La Discorde) and his furies try to bring disasters to the world, but Peace (La Paix) chases them off. The piece ends with a chorus of Arts and Soldiers wishing peace to last forever.
The contrasts in this 'opera' - as Charpentier called it sometimes himself - are impressively realised by Charpentier. These contrasts not only regard those between the arts and La Discorde but also within the choruses of Soldiers (Choeur des Guerriers) which sing the praise of La Musique but which also refer to the terror of war: "How sweet is it to hear your heavenly sound, after the terrible noises of blazing war guns and his thundering echo".

The performance did full justice to the dramatic power of Charpentier's work. There was a rather sober staging, not 'period style', but effective nonetheless, even though I couldn't quite figure out the meaning of the stage-requisites. At least the movements of the singers on the stage made sense and added something to the singing. Although some singers did use a little too much vibrato for my taste, on the whole the singing was of high quality. In particular Sophie Daneman and Nicolas Rivenq were impressive as La Paix and La Discorde respectively. The choruses - sung by the soloists - were also done quite well, with great theatrical flair.

It was appropriate that the other work on the programme was the short opera La descente d'Orphée aux enfers. Just like La Musique in Les Arts Florissants tells how she brings peace and quiet in the hearts of the soldiers, the story of Orpheus is about the power of music. With his singing Orpheus is able to bring consolation to Tantalus, Tityos and Ixion (a role originally sung by Charpentier) who lament their tortures and even mollifies Pluto to allow him to take Euridice with him. The opera, divided into two acts, doesn't contain the end of the story, where Orpheus loses Euridice again. It ends with a chorus in which the inhabitants of the underworld express the hope that the memory of Orpheus' sweet voice will always remain alive.

This work is nothing but a masterpiece. The dramatic development in the relatively short space of time and the scale of emotions displayed here is remarkable. In particular the role of Orpheus, accompanied by viole da gamba, is outstanding. It is very difficult to imagine a more emotional scene than the second of Act 1, where Euridice dies and Orpheus realises he is losing her. Paul Agnew was just brilliant as Orpheus, not just in this scene, but also in self-reproaching aria 'Lâche amant' ("Cowardly lover") and in 'Souviens-toi' with which he tries to make Pluto to give Euridice back. Sophie Daneman was equally good as Euridice, but Joao Fernandes a little leight-weight in the role of Pluto.
The lighting was effectively used in the second Act to create the atmosphere of the underworld. Even the stage-requisites made a little sense here. But in the end both the music of Charpentier and the dramatic and strongly gestural performance by Les Arts Florissants didn't need any (semi-)staging.

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

Relevant links:

Les Arts Florissants

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