At the request of Molière, who expected the first performance to take place at court in Versailles, Charpentier composed a very developed prologue entitled the «Eglogue en musique et en danse» («Eglogue in music and dance»), similar to the prologues which were to precede the lyrical tragedies of Lully, combining solo recitative and choruses, in praise of the king (Louis XIV). The Malade imaginaire is the last play by Molière, who died after its fourth performance, on the 17th February 1673.
As a genre, the comédie-ballet was invented by Molière and Lully in the 1660s and reached a climax with Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, in 1670. But the dispute between Lully and Molière (at the end of 1671), following the king’s musician being granted a monopoly for all dramatic productions with music in Paris — including those of Moliere — led the playwright to approch another composer, recently returned from Italy, who had not yet written any music for the stage: Charpentier.
The composer must have revised the music for the comedie-ballet at least twice, between 1673 and 1685, to meet the constraints imposed by the royal monopoly accorded to Lully and the Academie royale de musique, which after April 1673 held exclusive rights for all dramatic perfomances with music at the Palais Royal. These restrictions meant that Charpentier had to limit the number of singers and instrumentalists involved in each performance.
The recording presented by the Arts Florissants in 1990 and reissued here, has well stood the test of time. William Christie and his famous ensemble offer us a sparkling and dynamic interpretation. The group appears in its best form, giving the impression of freedom and exuberance — qualities which are lacking in another very good version recorded by Marc Minkowski and the Musiciens du Louvre also in 1990. Despite the homogénéity of the whole production, certain passages are particularly memorable; for example the opening Eglogue, where the orchestra and singers (Monique Zanetti, Noémi Rime, Howard Crook) are most impressive; the first interlude, includes an Italian aria «Zerbinetti», sung by an old woman (admirably depicted by the countertenor Dominique Visse) and dialogues between Polichinelle and the string orchestra, then another between Polichinelle and the ‘Archers’ which display all the skill and imagination of the musicians and actors. The latter include Alain Trétout and Jean Dautremay, who are dazzling. In brief, Le Malade imaginaire by the Arts florissants represents one of the best recordings of Charpentier’s music, which justifiably has attracted much attention during recent years. A pleasure that should not be missed.
Université de Montréal