Notes and Editorial Reviews
R E V I E W S:
"Another French baroque opera composer, Henry Desmarest, resurfaces after centuries of obscurity. Vénus & Adonis, first seen in 1697 in Paris, was composed in the midst of a scandal, when Desmarest eloped with a young singer who was the daughter of a powerful official. In his absence, he was sentenced to death and thus effectively exiled until his pardon in 1720. The opera’s theme of illicit love seems to have fired Desmarest’s imagination, and the stylish cast, headed by Karine Deshayes and Sébastien Droy, responds in kind. One senses, too, rare involvement in the playing of Les Talens Lyriques. More Desmarest operas await."
- Stephen Pettitt, TIMES ONLINE
Venus et Adonis
Christophe Rousset, cond; Karine Deshayes (
); Sébastien Droy (
); Anna-Maria Panzarella (
); Henk Neven (
); Jean Teitgen (
); Les Talens Lyriques
AMBROISIE 127 (2 CDs: 132:25
Text and Translation)
Driven by ambition, the talented Henry Desmarest (1661–1741) nonetheless sacrificed a brilliant musical career at the French court for love. Following the death of his first wife in 1696, Desmarest became secretly involved with one of his students, the daughter of the powerful director of taxation for Senlis district. When the affair became known, Desmarest fled with her in the face of parental anger, and was promptly accused of abduction. They left France in 1699, while the courts passed a sentence of death on the composer
Desmarest next secured a position as
maître de musique de la chambre
in Madrid, but found himself surrounded by intrigues and a growing love at court for Italian music. He left that post in 1707 and became
surintendant de la musique
to the Duke of Lorriane. Meanwhile, the composer’s friends continued to pressure for his return, but this was not to occur until after the Sun King’s death, in 1720. Though he continued writing, Desmarest was viewed as a spent force, and his efforts to end his career as
to the Royal Chapel following Delalande’s death in 1726 led nowhere.
The article on Desmarest in my
New Grove I
dismisses his operas “like most
before Rameau” as suffering from both poor librettos and a subordination of drama to decorative divertissements. I can’t speak to the quality of the verse employed for
Venus et Adonis
, but structurally it keeps closer to the framework of its plot than several of Rameau’s most celebrated works. This may be a matter of Desmarest putting his skills to deliberate best use, for his dances, though effective, are less memorable than those of his younger contemporary, while his recitatives (good examples are act I, scene 4; act III, scene 2; act V, scene 7) frequently rise to rare eloquence. His four main characters, too, are emotionally believable and well motivated, with the uncompromising and conflicted figure of Cidippe achieving a stature comparable to the great tragic heroines of French Romantic opera in the 19th century.
The story itself is an elaboration of the simple one found in Ovid’s
. Princess Cidippe loves Prince Adonis of Cyprus, but Venus has set her eye and much else upon him. Cidippe appeals to Mars (in this version of the myth, the husband of the goddess), who destroys the Cypriot capitol and unleashes a fearsome monster on the island kingdom. Adonis kills it, but at the cost of his life. When Venus returns for vengeance, Cidippe kills herself in front of the goddess, defiant to the end: “It is done, I feel that I am dying. Too happy to see the end of my misfortunes, while your immortal rank condemns you to suffer eternal grief.” A decidedly different take, this, on the manipulations of mortals by the gods, where the latter were usually equated with the rule of law and the court of the Sun King.
Venus et Adonis
was a significant success, the last of four
composed by Desmarest and performed at the Paris Opéra over a relatively short period, from 1693 through 1697. One other that he left incomplete while fleeing Paris,
Iphigénie en Tauride
, was to be finished by Campra, and became an enormous hit. The composer’s subsequent conditions of employment did not lead to ambitions of triumph on the stage, unfortunately, and he wrote only one more work of this kind:
, in 1722, celebrating the arrival of Louis XV’s Spanish fiancée in the French capitol. The new King was generous, and in response secured the restoration of Desmarest’s pension that had been eliminated at the time of his flight.
He had reason to be generous. Desmarest was a jewel in the crown of a court that considered itself the artistic center of Europe, long after the departure of the Sun King. Works such as
(which was performed to great acclaim by Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques in 1999) and
Venus et Adonis
have given the lie to the old assertion that there were no great French operas between Lully’s death and Rameau’s debut.
This recording was made during a series of live performances, in Nancy, in April and May 2006. It benefits from that fresh theatrical immediacy. Rousset’s conducting is taut, and pointed. His orchestra is first-rate, and more than capable of depicting the drama as it unfolds. Whether it is the summoning of Jealousy and its entourage by Cidippe or the two worlds of Venus and Mars thrown into musical collision, the orchestral performance remains riveting. My one concern here is that at times the playing is a bit too skittish and emotionally reticent for my tastes. Short shrift is given to a few of the most tender and lyrical moments in the opera—notably the second half of act IV, scene 1, a lengthy and beautiful
in which Venus and Adonis exchange affectionate banter about love, never dreaming that their tryst would soon end forever. But in lieu of competing recorded versions that are unlikely to occur anytime soon, the orchestral playing in this
Venus et Adonis
will certainly do.
The singing is generally strong. Deshayes is fine as Venus, fearlessly tossing forth her lean, beautiful sound to great effect in anger or despondency, but just as effective in softening it to display a woman in love. Neven’s Mars and Teitgen’s Jealousy are also fine creations, reveling in dark emotions without danger of caricature. Droy is less good, putting too much pressure on his voice to reveal passion (and thus, disrupting the vocal line) rather than using the language to its natural advantage. Sadly, Panzarella’s Cidippe is the least successful of the vocalists. She sings her part well enough, if too much on an even keel, but seldom shows any real feeling for the words. There’s no hurt or fury in this spurned, deceiving figure.
The sound favors the orchestra more than is usually the case. While this reveals details of Rousset’s continuo realization, it doesn’t work to the advantage of either Droy or Panzarella. The latter in particular would have benefited from a stronger aural perspective; as it is, some of her work is actually lost behind the small but resonant ensemble. Liner notes are good, and an effective translation is provided alongside the original text.
Though I’ve aired a few complaints about this recording, they should be understood in context. Where rare operas are concerned, we must sometimes accept a level of performance or sound that doesn’t always please us, in order to sample that which is definitely worth hearing. This
Venus et Adonis
could have paid more attention to the gentler aspects of the score, featured a more dramatically imaginative Cidippe, and balanced voices against orchestra to greater effect. But it also has many first-rate artists; and Christophe Rousset is to be congratulated on reviving this piece, and doing his very fine best to place it in a good light. I believe he succeeds. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Vénus et Adonis by Henry Desmarest
Karine Deshayes (Mezzo Soprano),
Sébastien Droy (Tenor),
Yu Ree Jang (Soprano),
Laure Baert (Soprano),
Anders J. Dahlin (Countertenor),
Jean Teltgen (Bass),
Ingrid Perruche (Soprano),
Henk Neven (Baritone),
Anna Maria Panzarella (Soprano)
Les Talens Lyriques,
National Opera of Lorraine Chorus
Written: 1697; France
Venue: Live National Opera of Lorraine, Nancy, Franc
Length: 133 Minutes 0 Secs.
Notes: National Opera of Lorraine, Nancy, France (04/28/2006 - 05/06/2006)
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