Notes and Editorial Reviews
Actéon. Orphée descendant aux enfers. La Pierre Philosophale
Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, cond; Aaron Sheehan (
); Teresa Wakim (
); Mireille Lebel (
); Lydia Brotherton (
); Amanda Forsythe (
class="ARIAL12">); Jason McStoots (
); Douglas Williams (
); Zachary Wilder (
); Olivier Laquerre (
); BEMF Vocal/Ch Ens
CPO 777 613-2 (66:19
Text and Translation)
The Boston Early Music Festival performed Charpentier’s
on a double bill with John Blow’s
Venus and Adonis
in Boston, November 29, 2008. I saw that production, with its excellent period choreography, and costuming—the stylized stag head and children equipped with hounds’ heads providing a fine distancing element—not to mention superlative singing and inventive staging.
Venus and Adonis
hasn’t made it to records yet, but here we have that
, with two other unstaged works of the composer.
Though there’s a dearth of information about
’s date of composition and performance, it may have been written for Charpentier’s primary patron, the Dauphin. That prince was known for his love of both music and hunting, whose themes are joined in this opera; he did command a retinue of musical resources, if hardly the deep stage and elaborate scenery of the Paris Opera. The libretto contains unusually few stage directions and set descriptions, but the latter turn up in profusion within the dialogue—“the crystal of these pure waters,” “the peace of this retreat”—fostering a sense that the opera may have been semi-staged, and for a private audience. A work of energy, imagination, and Italianate warmth, it shows just how much fine opera was lost in the days of Lully’s effective monopoly over the art form, and why he took the steps he did to nip potential competition in the bud.
Orphée descendant aux enfers
(1683–84) is considered a very early example of the French
, based on the Roman cantata. The instrumentation is light in both genres, the singers few, and the subject usually drawn from Biblical sources or Greco-Roman mythology. It shouldn’t be confused with Charpentier’s
La Descente d’Orphée
, composed roughly three years later.
calls for five female and male soloists each, with an orchestra that includes flutes, violins, viols, and the obligatory harpsichord. The far shorter
only requires a relatively modest three male singers and a small chamber instrumental ensemble. While
spans the Orphic tragedy,
is a moment in which the hero brings temporary peace to the hearts of Ixion and Tantalus, reminding them of the love they felt during their lifetimes. The overall emotional effect is not unlike the concluding “In paradisum” to Fauré’s Requiem, solace from suffering, and on a similarly personal scale.
La Pierre Philosophale
was first performed at the Comédie-Française in 1681. A
comédie mêlée de spectacles
, it was designed to show off fantastical stage machinery. In doing so, it was part of a venerable entertainment genre that continued through the dawn of motion pictures in the hundreds of short films by Georges Méliès, and into modern times with
films. The libretto, concerning that favorite dupe of the French stage, the faddish bourgeois (in this case, one who seeks occult knowledge to create the Philosopher’s Stone), has gone missing, but a detailed synopsis exists. This act IV divertissement features elementals drawn from the four Empedoclean kingdoms of air, fire, water, and earth; and since they’re fakes, brought into a plan to secure the marriage of that bourgeois’s daughter, they aren’t musically displayed with the imaginative power of Rebel’s
, but evince lighthearted charm and appealing dance rhythms.
I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Aaron Sheehan live in concerts and operas, performing in French, Italian, and English. He can be heard in his accustomed bright richness in
, and in the smaller role of Ixion in
. As always, high tessitura proves no problem, and the voice is seamlessly navigated at all times. Teresa Wakim’s supplies a narrow, perfectly placed, ringing tone, with great control over dynamics. Both furnish superior enunciation and ornamentation. In lesser roles, Amanda Forsythe is a standout, offering focused, brilliant tone, a silver top, and a gift for lyrical phrasing, while Lydia Brotherton makes a suitably imperious impression as Juno. Jason McStoots, whom I’ve heard live to good effect, seems curiously recessed from the microphone here during
, at least as compared to Williams and Sheehan, who have a lot of presence. (The same problem affects
’s chorus of nymphs, suddenly much more distant in sound than Wakim, a moment earlier.) As usual, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs supply stylish orchestral accompaniment with a solid rhythmic underpinning, and a natural ease with recitative.
Strongly recommended, not that you had any doubts.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Actéon, H 481 by Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Teresa Wakim (Soprano),
Paul O'Dette (Lute),
Aaron Sheehan (Tenor)
Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra
Written: 1683-1685; France
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