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Charpentier: Acteon / Stubbs, Sheehan, Wakim, Boston Early Music

Release Date: 11/16/2010 
Label:  Cpo   Catalog #: 777613   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Performer:  Teresa WakimPaul O'DetteAaron Sheehan
Conductor:  Stephen Stubbs
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CHARPENTIER Actéon. Orphée descendant aux enfers. La Pierre Philosophale Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, cond; Aaron Sheehan ( Actéon/Ixion ); Teresa Wakim ( Diane/Petite gnomide ); Mireille Lebel ( Hyaleé/Junon ); Lydia Brotherton ( Daphné/Feu ); Amanda Forsythe ( Aréthuse Read more class="ARIAL12">); Jason McStoots ( Orphée ); Douglas Williams ( Tantale ); Zachary Wilder ( Silphe ); Olivier Laquerre ( Eau ); BEMF Vocal/Ch Ens CPO 777 613-2 (66:19 Text and Translation)

The Boston Early Music Festival performed Charpentier’s Actéon 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 Actéon , with two other unstaged works of the composer.

Though there’s a dearth of information about Actéon ’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 cantate , 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. La Descente calls for five female and male soloists each, with an orchestra that includes flutes, violins, viols, and the obligatory harpsichord. The far shorter Orphée only requires a relatively modest three male singers and a small chamber instrumental ensemble. While La Descente spans the Orphic tragedy, Orphée 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 Star Wars 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 Les Élémens , 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 Actéon , and in the smaller role of Ixion in Orphée . 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 Orphée , at least as compared to Williams and Sheehan, who have a lot of presence. (The same problem affects Actéon ’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
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Works on This Recording

Actéon, H 481 by Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Performer:  Teresa Wakim (Soprano), Paul O'Dette (Lute), Aaron Sheehan (Tenor)
Conductor:  Stephen Stubbs
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1683-1685; France 

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