Passion Gens 747
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Passion: An Imaginary Opera
Véronique Gens (soprano)
Ensemble Les Surprises/Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas
Les Chantes du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles/Olivier Schneebeli
rec. November 2020, L’Arsenal Cité Musicale, Metz, France
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
ALPHA 747 [57:12]

The background to this recording is interesting. The conductor Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas tells the story in the booklet. In 2018 he and his orchestra Ensemble Les Surprises were invited to Ambronay Festival for a concert together with Véronique Gens. They had never met before, but the rehearsals went extremely well, the programme French baroque music and both parties felt that they would like to get together again and perform more of the same kind. Louis-Noël continues:

“I still remember with emotion the moment, a few days after this concert, when my phone rang: it was Véronique calling to tell me she wanted to record a disc with us! What more could one dream of?”

They built the programme around Lully, his pupils and contemporaries, and found opportunities to include some previously unrecorded music by Collasse and Desmarets. They conceived the music as an imaginary opera with three characters: Véronique Gens, Ensemble Les Surprises and Les Chantes du CMBV.

Louis-Noël concludes: “We want to write a beautiful story along with Véronique – and since this is only the first chapter, all it needs is a beautiful continuation!”

Véronique Gens started out as a baroque singer in the mid-1980s – her debut was with William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants – but after more than a decade she widened her repertoire. Her great breakthrough came when she sang Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Aix-en-Provence directed by Peter Brooks. I was lucky to catch this production in Stockholm when it went on tour, and since then Véronique has been one of my greatest favourites, and my CD-collection contains a large number of recordings by her, not least her song recitals. Here she now returns to her roots, and, almost 35 years after her debut, her voice is in fine fettle and her art of interpretation has, if anything, deepened.

The recital – yes, in spite of the subtitle “An Imaginary Opera” this is primarily a concert of unrelated arias – is also an homage to two of the great prima donnas – or “premières actrices” as they were called at the time – at the Paris Opéra at the end of the 17th century: Mlle Saint-Christophe and Mlle Le Rochois. They were Lully’s stars, Mlle Saint-Christophe (her first name unknown) from 1675 until 1682, when she withdrew to a convent, Marie Le Rochois from 1683 to 1698, when she retired and turned to teaching. After Lully’s demise in 1687 she created roles in many of his successors, including Charpentier, of whom two arias from Médée are included here. That they were as both singers and actresses can easily be appreciated from this recording, which requires the soprano to express all kinds of emotions, whether it be sorrow, longing, infatuation, anger, despair or anything in between. The titles of the five acts provide expressive hints at what to expect. See below for details.

Besides Lully and Charpentier, we encounter two of Lully’s disciples. Pascal Collasse composed a dozen operas, of which Achille et Polyxène (1687) and Thétis et Pélée (1689) were his first two. Achille et Polyxène was in fact Lully’s last opera, which he left unfinished when he died, and Collasse completed the last four acts. Henry Desmarets was also supposed to have received some training from Lully, and some early works of his were performed privately for the Royal Court to great acclaim, including his first full-length opera Endymion (1686). Since Lully had a Royal monopoly to write operas for the Paris Opéra he had to wait until after his death before he could carry through his own career. Endymion is unfortunately lost, and La Diane de Fontainebleau (also 1686) is strictly speaking a divertissement, a short, light piece often inserted in a longer stage work. Circé (1694) was however a full-length tragedy in five acts and a prologue.

The music is throughout attractive. Lully’s works are more or less well-known, in particular by those with a fancy for French baroque. Collasse and Desmarets follow in his footsteps. The former’s thundering storm music (tr. 4) with chorus is truly terrifying, and the latter’s aria from Circé (tr. 5) is attractively melodious. Lully’s Passepied from Ballet du temple de la paix (tr. 7) is lively and captivating and should have been to Louis XIV’s liking, while the two airs from Proserpine show him at his best vocally speaking. Maybe even better is the long air and chorus from Alceste (tr. 18) – this is a true highlight, and the two airs from Médée (tr. 19 & 20) find Charpentier in top shape. He was of course a towering personality in the musical life of 17th century France, and his enormous oeuvre still entices listeners all over the world – even though for the man in the street he is still the one who composed the signature fanfare for the Eurovision television broadcasts.

The highlights I picked above are not the only “goodies” here. The whole disc is a cornucopia of excellent music from the 17th century, you need not bother too much about the imaginary opera. Just lean back, follow the texts if you like or just listen. You can rest assured that the playing of Ensemble Les Surprises is top notch, the singing of Les Chantes du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles is all that one could wish for, and, on top of this, Véronique Gens enchants through her singing, through her expressive handling of the texts – and her diction is as always: superb. There is all reason in the world to quote Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas’s words above once again: “…this is only the first chapter, all it needs is a beautiful continuation!” When, Alpha, is chapter two coming up?

Göran Forsling

Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632 – 1687)
Amadis, LWV 63:
1. Air Toi, qui dans ce tombeau [2:50]
2. Prélude [0:55]
Pascal COLLASSE (1649 – 1709)
Achille et Polyxène:
3. Air Calme tes déplaisirs [1:58]
Thétis et Pélée:
4. Tempête [1:46]

Henry DESMARETS (1661 – 1741)
5. Air Désirs, transports [3:15]
Jean-Baptiste LULLY
Proserpine, LWV 58:
6. Deuxième air [0:47]
Ballet du temple de la paix, LWV 69:
7. Entrée des bretons, Passepied [1:10]
Proserpine, LWV 58:
8, Air et Choeur Ô malheureuse mère … [5:05]
9. Air et Choeur Que tout se ressente de la fureur que je sens [3:05]

Jean-Baptiste LULLY
Atys, LWV 53:
10. Air Espoir sic her et si doux [3:00]
Ballet de la naissance de Vénus, LWV 27:
11. Sarabande Dieux des enfers [2:23]
Le Bourgeois gentillhomme, LWV 43:
12. Canaries [1:03]
Armide, LWV 71:
13. Air Enfin, il est en ma puissance [4:05]
Persée, LWV 60:
14. Ouverture [2:11]

Jean-Baptiste LULLY
Le triomphe de l’amour, LWV 59:
15. Air de la nuit Voici le favorable temps … [5:45]
La Diane de Fontainebleu:
16. Choeur du sommeil [3:10]
Jean-Baptiste LULLY
Alceste, LWV 50:
17. Pompe funèbre [0:36]
18. Air et Choeur La mort, la mort barbare … [6:03]

Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 – 1704)
Médée, H.491:
19. Air Quel prix de mon amour [3:33]
20. Air et Choeur Noires filles du Styx [3:12]
Jean-Baptiste LULLY
Le triomphe de l’amour, LWV 59:
21. Air pour l’entrée de Borée et des quatre vents [1:08]