Notes and Editorial Reviews
Hervé Niquet, cond; Shannon Mercer (
); Bénédicte Tauran (
); Jaël Azzaretti (
High Priestess of Bacchus
); Hjördis Thébault (
); Anders J. Dahlin (
); Thomas Dolié (
); Lisandro Abadie (
); Marc Labonnette (
Cadmus/Grand Priest of Bacchus
); Le Concert Spirituel (period instruments)
GLOSSA 921614 (2 CDs: 137:22
Text and Translation)
When I think of Marin Marais (1656–1728), I think, naturally enough, of the
basse de viole
. He was taught by the renowned virtuoso Sainte-Colombe, and in turn taught a generation of the finest new instrumentalists. It was written that Antoine Forqueray played like a devil, while Marais played like an angel—though if this implies Marais had an incredibly sweet tone, he was certainly not lacking in virtuosity. His appointment as
Ordinaire de la chambre du Roi pour la viole
to Louis XIV, a discerning critic, is ample proof of that. Marais was also a celebrated composer on his chosen instrument, published and imitated at home and abroad. But it is often forgotten that he was taught composition by Lully, and composed four operas in his teacher’s admired
tragédie en musique
form. Of these, the most admired was
, premiered in 1706 and staged as late as 1771. Its 1709 successor,
, drew far less praise; and after that, Marais retired from the operatic stage.
A major reason for its comparative failure lay in the characterization of the eponymous heroine. Judging from the way the experienced librettist, de La Motte, constructed his plot, the respective librettos by Giovanni Faustini and Francesco Busenello might have been in his mind: a multi-layered discourse in which tragic and comic characters pursue their own agendas, occasionally complementing or facing off against one another (as Dorine, Sémélé’s cynical maid, repeatedly does to her mistress). This would explain the different musical weight Marais accords to each of three pairs of characters: Sémélé and Adraste; amorous Jupiter and jealous Junon; and finally Dorine and her beaux, the disguised Mercure, who play at love for the giddy power it gives over someone else. But Faustini and Busenello succeeded in supplying their serious figures with a genuinely tragic dimension, based on the choices they make and the fates they accept. After a brief moment of lip service to filial duty, Sémélé simply floats passively along in her love affair with Jupiter, removing all possibility of internal Racinian conflict—or audience sympathy.
The music is distinctive, however. Though Marais composed
tragédie en musique
, the score is decorated with far more dances and airs than was usually the case. The prologue, a Bacchanalia that praises the god of wine and rebirth, contains many ingenious and spirited examples of the former, exhibiting the typically French tendency to show up at any logical and even a few illogical occasions: sublime Junon certainly doesn’t need the Furies to help her teach Sémélé a lesson, but evoking them in act III is reason enough for a dance; while the fourth act is set near a rustic cave, which means a march for Baroque shepherds and shepherdesses. The airs are more numerous, but spread out to greater effect. Several are linked together to furnish the first scene of act II between Dorine and Mercury, and they are a succession of light-hearted examples where the home key of D Minor lends a curious touch of gravitas to the proceedings. In addition, grandiloquent accompanied recitatives are few, while arias are lengthy, well crafted, and tenderly intimate rather than profound in character. I think there is reason to suspect Marais and de La Motte sought to graft numerous features of the
tragédie en musique
. The result, in any case, is musically more varied and lively than normally holds true for Lully’s art form.
None of the voices are standouts—at least, not given the current recording conditions that are discussed below. However, all feature excellent enunciation, effective turns, good breath control, and natural phrasing. As the words were of equal weight to the music in Baroque French opera, so they are, here: each performer communicates both the general meaning of the words and a specific moment-by-moment comprehension of what is being sung. I would single out Hjördis Thébault for the infusion of passion she rightly finds in the venomous Junon, without resorting to early 20th-century methods of expressing it. Le Concert Spirituel is precise and powerful in their attacks, yet rhythmically fluid. Hervé Niquet is, as always, a dynamic force at the podium, who combines an almost manic energy with tight focus, and never pushes his soloists beyond their means.
If I do take exception with anything in this production, it’s the engineering. Not the warm, resonant recording venue, but the placement of the singers behind the orchestra. While this simulates many live performances, it arguably does little for listeners who wish to hear more of the tonal quality of the vocalists away from the theater. The voices aren’t submerged, as much as they sometimes sound no louder than a single orchestral line in the ongoing music. This certainly provides an unusually detailed aural view of Marais’s musical textures, but are these really supposed to be the focus of the opera?
Still, with excellent music, fine performances, a decent essay, full libretto, and both English and Spanish translations, I’m not inclined to complain too much. There’s simply too much to enjoy, here. Recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Sémélé by Marin Marais
Lisandro Abadie (Tenor),
Jaël Azzaretti (Soprano),
Thomas Dolié (Tenor),
Marc Labonnette (Tenor),
Shannon Mercer (Soprano),
Bénédicte Tauran (),
Hjördis Thébault (Mezzo soprano)
Le Concert Spirituel
Written: 1709; France
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