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29 Nov 2006
CHARPENTIER: Andromède; Ballet de Polyeucte
Conceived by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) to serve as musical interludes for a revival at the Jesuit college of Harcourt in 1680 of Pierre Corneille’s play, Polyeucte Martyr (originally written in 1642), the ballet Le combat de l'amour divin was composed for string orchestra with trumpets, kettledrums and continuo.
It presents several dance entries with varied titles that suggest the martyr’s internal conflict («Sentiments genereux et lasches» («Generous and cowardly feelings»).
Charpentier’s Andromède was also a revival; written by Corneille in 1650, this tragedy was performed again in April 1682, with new music composed by Charpentier to replace the original score of Charles Dassoucy. This revival, which was enormously expensive (above all for the costume and scenery ), doubtless aimed at restoring the glory of the Comédie Française, whose productions had been eclipsed by the new operas (tragédies lyriques) of Lully. In fact at the same time, Lully gave the first performances of his Persée — an opera composed on a libretto by Quinault which deals with the same myth. As Catherine Cessac explains in her book (Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Paris, 1988; rev. 2004; Engl. Translation 1995), Charpentier’s music was conceived in the same spirit as the decor and stage machines, which were the main attraction of the spectacle.
The recording by the New Chamber Opera and the Band of Instrument, directed by Gary Cooper, is uneven. In Andromède’s overture the musicians seem sometimes hesitant, which provokes a certain instability in rhythm as well as in dynamics; but the performance quickly picks up and gains in homogeneity when we hear the four singers (Rachel Elliott, soprano; James Gilchrist, tenor; Thomas Guthrie, baritone; Giles Underwood, bass) who are always very expressive. In this respect, the last two choruses of Andromède are quite successful.
The Ballet de Polieucte, opens with an overture originally composed by Charpentier for the revival, in July 1679, of Le Dépit amoureux, a play written by Molière in 1656. Here the instrumentalists exhibit a certain mastery of the style of the work, and manage to underline the contrasts between the dance entries (particularly in the striking «Marche de Triomphe», or gay «La joye seulle»).
Despite a few imperfections, we should be grateful that this recording presents us with two unknown works by Charpentier. But a recording cannot in any sense replace a stage representation and we hope that it may open the way for new performances (on stage). It is a pity that that these two musical plays have not yet aroused the interest and curiosity of stage directors, actors and musicians, particularly in this fourth centenary of the birth of Pierre Corneille (1606-1684). While in the Comédie Française in Paris Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, L’Amour médecin and the Sicilien, with music by Lully, have enjoyed considerable, well merited, success for many years now, Corneille remains very neglected. But John Powell, Professor at the University of Tulsa (USA), eminent specialist of the music and theater in 17th century, invites us to appreciate his reconstruction of Andromède on the following web site: http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~john-powell/Andromede/index.htm
Université de Montréal