Charpentier With The Boston Early Music Festival
The Boston Early Music Festival has become an internationally recognized leader in the period performance of early music. Founded in 1980, the BEMF began offering a Chamber Ensemble series in 2008. In 2011, the Chamber Ensemble presented two short rare operas by the French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 -- 1704): "The Crown of Flowers" and "The Descent of Orpheus to the Underworld". The Chamber Ensemble recorded these two works for this new CD on the CPO label in 2013.
During his life, Charpentier was hindered by the jealousy of the Court composer, Jean Baptiste Lully (1632 -- 1687). Charpentier still managed to compose an extraordinary amount of music, both religious and secular. The two works on this CD probably were composed between 1685 -- 1687. The performances on this CD are by a small chamber ensemble of ten musicians playing violin, viola de gamba, oboe and recorder, theorbo, baroque guitar, and harpsichord and organ. Each opera includes an identical cast of eight solo singers together with a chorus. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs are the directors.
It is a joy to hear the music and performance in both these works. The music is lyrical and dancelike. The melodic vocal lines are beautiful to follow with clearly articulated French diction. There is an intricate interplay between the voice and the subtle but simple instrumentation. The ensemble comments upon the vocal score in many ways, frequently in underlying counterpoint. The theorbo and guitar often are predominant, with the strings coming to the fore in some of the more intense sections. The instrumental interludes show close ensemble work. This music is fresh and delightful. While unmistakably French Baroque in character and rhythm, the two works show that Charpentier was gifted with his own unique voice.
The first work on the CD, "The Crown of Flowers" was based upon an earlier collaboration between Charpentier and Moliere and remained unpublished during the composer's life. It is a pastorale, which celebrates both the coming of spring and regeneration and the glories of Louis XIV in bringing an end to one of his many wars. The goddess of flowers, Flore, offers the reward of a garland of flowers to the singer who can offer the best praise to Louis XIV. Several singers compete during the course of the short work until the god Pan decrees that there can be no victor. Flore distributes individual flowers to each contestant. For all the fulsome praise to the monarch, this music celebrates timeless themes of poetry and rebirth. In its lightness, the music transports the listener to a different world.
The longer work on the CD is the two-act opera based on the Orpheus legend. It is unusual in that it does not tell the entire story and was probably left unfinished. The opera begins with the same pastorale qualities as "The Crown of Flowers" with Orpheus and Euridice about to be married until Euridice is fatally bitten by a snake. The god Apollo urges Orpheus to go to the underworld to pursuade Pluto to allow Euridice to return to life. Charpentier's opera ends with Pluto giving his reluctant consent with the notorious condition attached. This opera is a songlike telling of the Orfeus story. The music has a translucent character and consists entirely of airs and instrumental interludes with no sections of recitif. Tenor Aaron Sheehan sings the role of Orpheus. His several airs pleading with Pluto and his wife Proserpine leave the listener no doubt of the power of beautiful music to conquer death.
The liner notes to this CD include extended scholarly essays on both works, synopses, librettos and translations, and background information on the BEMF and on each performer. It is inspiring that two American period ensembles have been responsible for the revival of interest in Charpentier: William Christie and Les Arts Florissants and the Boston Early Music Festival. While lovers of the French Baroque and period performances will be most interested in this CD, Charpentier will appeal to all music lovers. The Naxos label, which distributes the CD, kindly provided me with a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Total Time: 79:11