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André Cardinal DESTOUCHES (1672-1749)/Michel-Richard de LALANDE (1657-1726)
Les Eléments, opéra-ballet in a prologue and 4 entrées
Élodie Fonnard, Eugénie Lefebvre (soprano), Étienne Bazola (baritone)
Ensemble Les Surprises/Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas
Recorded 8 - 12 November 2015, Espace C.J. Bonnet, chapel, Jujurieux, France DDD
Texts and translations included
AMBRONAY AMY046 [75:47]

In the late 1730s Jean-Fery Rebel composed a simphonie nouvelle, called Les Eléments. It is by far his most popular work and has been performed regularly in modern times. He was not the first to chose this subject for a composition. In 1721 Michel-Richard de Lalande and André Cardinal Destouches were involved in a co-production: the composition and performance of Les Eléments, an opéra-ballet in a prologue and four entrées.

Lalande was the main composer of his generation and held several positions at court. He was the favourite composer of Louis XIV who especially liked his grands motets. After the death of the king, during the Regency period, Lalande began to gather round him a number of survivanciers, his future successors who bought his posts in advance. One of them was Destouches, who bought the post of surintendant de la musique and assisted Lalande in directing court spectacles.

The performance of this piece at court was part of the policy to establish the authority of Louis XV, who was just five years of age when he succeeded his great-grandfather. In 1718 the young king discovered one of Lalande's ballets and liked it so much that he attended several performances. It laid the foundation for ballet lessons, and only two years later Louis XV appeared on stage himself, taking part in the dance interludes in Thomas Corneille's comedy L'inconnu. It was such a success that more plays were produced to give Louis the opportunity to act as a dancer.

In 1721 Lalande and Destouches produced Les Eléments which was different from previous productions in that it was a full opéra-ballet. The first performance was disappointing, as Destouches himself admitted, partly because "it was danced by little lords whose talent was not of the first degree". However, in the next years it was performed at court several times. In 1725 it found its first public performance, at the Académie Royale de Musique. "Substantial alterations effected the transformation of the royal commission into an opéra-ballet conforming to the tastes of the town", Françoise Escande writes in the booklet. One of the alterations was the fourth entrée, called La Terre. It replaced the original Epilogue in which the king had danced. The fourth entrée was instead a showcase for the company's actresses. Other alterations cannot be traced as the original score of 1721 has been lost.

It is also impossible to decide which part was written by whom. The composers refused to reveal what each of them had written. Françoise Escande states that stylistically there is little difference between them. However, the overture is by Lalande and is a reworking of music for a divertissement of 1696; the choruses are also thought to be from Lalande's pen. The music for the various roles was probably written by Destouches.

Like Rebel's work this opéra-ballet opens with Le cahos as its Prologue. "It is a mass of clouds, rocks, motionless and suspended waters, fire issuing from volcanoes. Destiny is placed centre-stage". The first entrée is L'Eau, water. The scene represents the palace of Neptune, the god of the sea. The shorter second entrée is called L'Air; the scene represents the palace of Juno; Time is at her feet, the Hours beside her. In Roman mythology she was the protector and special counselor of the state. Time is the subject of this entrée and the connection between Juno and Time could be that one of her functions was the cyclical renewal of time in the waning and waxing of the moon and protection of delivery and birth.

The third entrée is the longest and the most dramatic. It is called Le Feu (fire) and the scene represents the vestibule of the temple of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, home, and family in Roman religion. Vesta's presence is symbolized by the sacred fire that burned at her hearth and temples. This part is about the love between Emilie and Valère which is under threat from "a thousand horrors", as Emilie puts it. The closing entrée which I already referred to is short but substantial as it includes the longest and most expressive aria of the whole piece, sung by a shepherd. As one would expect the work ends with a chaconne.

This is not a recording of the work as it was performed in the 1720s. "I decided to construct a salon version of the work, with the three singers sharing between them both the principal roles (from Roman gods to simple shepherds, very much in vogue at the time) and the choruses", Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas writes in the booklet. He mentions that this was common practice at the time. "It made it possible to perform operas in smaller spaces and thus enjoy the latest and most fashionable music in a more intimate setting that that of the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris". This is a very respectable approach but I would have liked a little more consistency. It seems very doubtful that percussion was used in salon performances. A triangle, one of the percussion instruments played here? Probably. But timpani? That seems highly unlikely. Wind machines were most certainly not part of performances in intimate surroundings. Their participation in the second entrée for the part called Tempête is not justified. It is the challenge for performers of a 'pocket-size' opera as we have here to suggest the effects in the theatre with instruments alone.

This is a serious flaw in an otherwise good and interesting production. The playing of the instruments is very good and the three singers deliver nice performances, although I would have liked a little less vibrato from the two sopranos. As far as I know this work has never been recorded in its original form, with a full orchestra. Such a recording would be desirable, considering the quality of the music. For the time being this disc is a valuable addition to the catalogue as it is the only way to get to know this ballet opera.

Johan van Veen



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