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Gian Lorenzo Bernini : Bust of Louis XIV
03 Mar 2018

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV recreated at Versailles

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV, with Ensemble Pygmalion, conducted by Raphaël Pichon now on DVD/Blu -ray from Harmonia Mundi. This captures the historic performance at the Chapelle Royale de Versailles in November 2015, on the 300th anniversary of the King's death.

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV, Ensemble Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon (conductor), Céline Scheen, Lucile Richardot, Samuel Boden, Marc Mauillon and Christian Immler.

A review by Anne Ozorio

Harmonia Mundi HMD 9909056.57 DVD, Blu-ray

  Click to buy

When Louis took control of his kingdom, he marked the occasion with an extravaganza, Le Concert Royal de la Nuit, a grand statement that was as much political as artistic. Just as the Sun King announced his arrival at Dawn, dressed as the sun, his funeral was staged in darkness : the Sun having gone down on his world. Everything Louis XIV did was a form of theatre, from the audacity of his vision for France, to Versailles, and even to his wigs and clothing.

Though extremely well played and sung, this performance needs to be experienced visually for maximum impact. Night time shrouds the architectural splendours of the Chapelle Royale, but this is how things should be. In the presence of death, material glory is nothing. In the presence of God, even the Sun King is mortal man. The original funeral rites took place over a period of 24 hours, with ovations, prayers and lying in state. Here, instead, we focus on the music, and its liturgical meaning. Darkness enhances the experience, intensifying the mystery that is life and death.

A single bell tolls. Out of the gloom we hear the Subventi sancti Dei, sung as if by monastic choir. The voices echo out into the distance, filling the recesses of the chapel. The echo in this performance space is glorious, more otherworldly and spiritual than can be replicated in modern buildings or studios. We catch quick glimpses of marble alcoves, lit for a moment before darkness falls again. Later the spotlight lingers on a soprano/tenor/baritone trio. The black and white starkness is warmed by flashes of golden light, contrasting with blue light through the windows beyond, reinforcing the idea of "eternal light" in the distance. But the days of wrath are still to come. The "monastic choir" intones, led at times by a bass baritone. A descent into total darkness, the silence broken by the thud of a single drum. André Danican Philidor Marche pour le Convoy du roi accompanies the procession of the King's simple black-draped coffin as it slowly enters the chapel and down the nave. Even in death, Louis XIV recognized the power of symbolism. The chapel door closes. The King is no longer "of the world". An extended De profundis by Michel-Richard de Lalande, led by the magnificent bass baritone of Christian Immler, reminds us of the achievements of the King's past. From a position near the roof, a solo bass voice intones,imploring God to grant mercy. His voice, and the voices of the two small choirs in balconies above the nave, reverberate as if unto the Heavens. The haute-contre, Samuel Boden sings an unearthly In paradisum. He isn't visible, but his voice is heard as we ponder the ornate ceiling fresco which depicts God. A de Lalande Dies Irae follows, Immler singing of the trumpet call that shall awake the dead to the Day of Judgement. A beautiful passage, where Samuel Boden sings of hope and redemption. Light is beginning to fill the chapel. The cameras linger on the singers and players, the mortals Jesus was sent to Earth to save. "Lord grant him Mercy" : soloists, choirs, and players all together in harmony, as the camera pans on the image of the sun above the altar, painted gold, its rays descending on the ensemble below. Soloists included Céline Scheen, Lucile Richardot, Samuel Boden, Marc Mauillon and Christian Immler. Realisation for film was by Stéphanien Vérité, lighting by Bertrand Coudere. Raphaël Pichon conducted the Ensemble Pygmalion orchestra and choirs. We're not supposed to "enjoy" funerals, but Louis XIV must have gone out in style.

Anne Ozorio

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