The fact that Marc-Antoine Charpentier has left far more sacred
than secular music was probably not a matter of choice but rather
the result of historical circumstance. He had the bad luck to
be a contemporary of Jean-Baptiste Lully who, although of Italian
birth, was a staunch defender of the 'true' French style. He
totally dominated the realm of opera and didn't allow any possible
rivals to shine. Charpentier, who had studied with Carissimi
in Rome, was suspect, firstly because of the Italian features
in his oeuvre, secondly because of his dramatic talent. That
talent comes to the fore in his sacred music, but also in his
works with a secular subject.
This disc brings together three specimens of this part of his
oeuvre, which bear witness to his theatrical instinct. Charpentier
composed just one opera, Médée, but the main work on
this disc, Actéon, can be considered a pocket-size opera.
Although it is called a pastorale en musique, the autograph
manuscript begins with an Ouverture de l'Opéra d'Actéon.
It is divided into six scenes, the first five of which all end
with an instrumental piece, as was usual in opera.
It is not quite clear whether the work was staged when it was
first performed. In fact, it isn't known for sure for what occasion
it was written. Charpentier had close ties with Marie de Lorraine,
Duchesse de Guise, but he was also the favourite composer of
the Crown Prince. A private performance at his court is quite
possible, also considering the subject of Actéon. It
is based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, and tells of Actaeon,
a hunter who trying to find a place to rest unexpectedly sees
Diana - goddess of chastity - bathing, surrounded by her nymphs.
Angry that a mortal has seen her in the nude she takes revenge
with a curse: Actaeon is changed into a stag who is then devoured
by his own dogs. This subject must have been suitable to perform
before the Crown Prince, who was an enthusiastic hunter. It
is known that Charpentier himself sang the role of Actaeon.
The recording is based on live and staged performances during
the Boston Early Music Festival, and that must have been a good
preparation for a lively performance in the recording studio.
There is a strong coherence within the vocal ensemble, which
sings the choruses, and whose members also perform the solo
parts. Aaron Sheehan and Teresa Wakim give very fine accounts
of their roles as Actaeon and Diana respectively. Lydia Brotherton,
Amanda Forsythe and Mireille Lebel take the roles of the nymphs,
and their voices blend excellently. Ms Lebel also sings the
role of Juno, who at the end reveals what has happened to Actaeon.
The chorus of the hunters which laments about Actaeon's fate
is particularly expressive.
Orphée descendant aux enfers has no reference to any
genre, but is generally called a cantata, although this genre
only came into existence in the early 18th century, as a direct
result of the growing influence of the Italian style. This piece
could also be a scene from an opera. The myth of Orpheus and
Euridice is one of the most famous subjects in 17th and 18th
century operas and cantatas. Charpentier focuses on Orpheus
as he descends into the underworld to collect his beloved Euridice,
where he meets two criminals, Ixion and Tantalus. The piece
opens with a prelude, which is called récit d'Orphée sur
le violon. The violin here represents Orpheus' instrument,
the lyre. Jason McStoots sings this role whose range requires
an haute-contre, a high tenor going well into the alto
range with his natural voice, without using the falsetto register.
McStoots is alright, but probably could have made a bit more
of his part. The small roles of the criminals are sung by Aaron
Sheehan and Douglas Williams. The piece ends with a moral: "Once
love touches a soul, it can feel no other torments".
The last piece of this disc is an example of music which Charpentier
wrote for plays to be performed at the theatre. It is the only
music which was to be performed during the play, which deals
with the fascination with all things magic in the 17th century.
Two choruses of the Four Elements embrace short solos of a gnome
girl and a sylph and a duet of water and fire. The choruses
again show the good blending of the voices; the soloists are
Teresa Wakim, Lydia Brotherton, Zachary Wilder and Olivier Laquerre.
In recent years Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, with their
ensembles, have successfully explored French theatrical music
of the 17th century. This has resulted in two recordings of
operas by Lully for CPO, Thésée and Psyché. With
this new recording they have extended their discography with
another fine production. The two main works on this disc have
been recorded before, but as they are not frequently performed
this new recording is welcome, in particular as they are given
nice performances. La pierre philosophale seems to have
been recorded here for the first time and sheds light on one
of the least-known aspects of Charpentier's oeuvre.
The booklet contains an informative essay by Gilbert Blin, who
was also the drama coach for the live performances at the Boston
Early Music Festival. Pictures from these staged performances
are also included. In addition Stephen Stubbs contributes some
personal notes on the three works in the programme. All lyrics
are given with an English and a German translation.
Johan van Veen