Hemispheric Opera Premiere — Part 3
Or, “She finally gets around to the actual review.” *embarrassed look* Sorry I’m so longwinded. I should mention here that the opera was part of the Festival of the New in Cincinnati. Also, Googling has revealed to me that Les Arts Florissants did perform this work while on tour from 1996 on, but apparently they did it with cuts. So I guess this was the premiere of the full opera. I will also say that, while I like opera and early music, I’m not particularly knowledgeable about either of them. So don’t expect a lot of technical talk or comparisons to other performances.
However, the full opera was being performed by dint of doubling up on parts. For example, the same lady played three minor nymph parts (Oenone, Arethusa and Daphne). Since said nymphs only had a few lines each, this was no big deal. Having the other female singer sing both Eurydice and Persephone was a bit more difficult! However, the singers used slightly different handheld masks (which they only put up to their faces before and after scenes, and kept well away from their faces while singing) to indicate what role they were in. This worked well for me and was visually interesting, especially since the singers didn’t wear costumes.
I was expecting a lot of recitative. I like that fine, but it’s a bit dry when you don’t know the language. Luckily, French baroque opera didn’t seem to believe in recitative. It did believe in “basso continuo”, about which I have read a great deal and of which I’ve heard a good bit, but I didn’t really understand it until now. You know, it’s really just a sophisticated form of the bass “drone” that people like to set up when someone’s singing certain kinds of folk ballads. The major difference is that it’s instrumental rather than vocal, and that the improv’d accompaniment is done according to certain harmonic rules of Charpentier’s day (whereas we do it according to the preferences of ours!). It gives me a lovely relaxed feeling, sorta like slipping into a nice warm early music bath. (Dangerous if you’re at all sleepy. So if anyone saw me yawn, it wasn’t because I was bored!)
The one major and obvious problem with doing a baroque opera in a church sanctuary is that there was absolutely no way they could have included dancing. (Unless they did a galliard up and down the central aisle….) Since the opera begins with the nymphs encouraging Eurydice and Orpheus’ friends to dance for the bride and groom (or rather, to “rend the air” with songs and “mark the grass” by dancing it down), and this is followed by a couple instrumentals obviously meant for dancing, I really felt this absence. Since the dancing was obviously meant to warm up the audience, this had a bad effect dramatically. (Well, a neutral effect, actually. But having things neutral at the very beginning equals bad.)
Anyway, Eurydice shows up and is obviously a rabid anti-dancer, as she pleads for people to stop stomping the flowers and start picking them so she can give Orpheus a crown of flowers when he arrives. (Of roses and white jasmine.) Just as with the nymph’s songs, we go through a few choruses and reprises here. And here is one major thing I learned from seeing a baroque opera performed: all those choruses and reprises do not have to be boring. There is no law that says composers always have to repeat the same lyrics to the same music, or the same music in the same way, or that the singers have to sing it in a boring way. Charpentier plays with his choruses and reprises, and the singers and musicians seemed to be enjoying it.
Eurydice gets bitten by a snake, which again would have been more effective with more room. Charpentier just lets her go “Oh!” and leaves it go at that, which works well. Here’s the good bit: one of her nymph friends, not realizing what had happened, gives Eurydice a moral speech about how our pleasures are always mixed with pain, and that even when playing with flowers you’re bound to prick yourself! Man, that was irony!
People finally notice that Eurydice is feeling poorly and Eurydice sings a bit more. Again, it was very restrained. Orpheus arrives just in time for Eurydice to die in his arms. The poor lady playing her had no room to slump to the ground, and the back pews wouldn’t've been able to see her anyway, so she just kinda drooped and then put on her mask and walked away. The singer did a really good job, but I honestly think the first act needs to be performed in a lively way, dancers and all. It’s supposed to be evoking the living world at its height of color, beauty and enjoyment, at a wedding which is designed to produce new life. Since the next act heads straight for the land of the dead, more contrast would have been good. But all the singers did their best in a very constrained environment.
Orpheus is definitely the main character in this opera, and it’s a really good part for a countertenor. I liked this Orpheus very much. He was very good at conveying his character’s grief.
There’s a brief scene in which Orpheus thinks about killing himself to follow Eurydice, but Apollo tells him that shedding his blood will be like shedding Apollo’s own. (This opera goes with the theory that Orpheus was the son of Apollo and a Muse.) Apollo then tells him to try going to the underworld and pleading with Hades. Orpheus doubts this will work, but goes in lieu of anything better to do with his now-worthless life.
Act two started off with something really cool — a male singing group of misery composed of Tantalus, Sisyphus and Tityus! If this doesn’t cry out for an animated version, I don’t know what does. Anyway, the three hear Orpheus singing, and their torments cease for a moment as all Tartarus (including Sisyphus’ wheel, Tantalus’ fruit trees, and Tityus’ vultures) stops to listen to the magical music. (I do think Orpheus had some nerve singing that their torments were nothing to his….) The three guys plead with Orpheus to sing again, and he does, with the same results. Hades notices that everything is standing around and not working and comes to see what’s causing the disruption.
Hades is a good part, too. A bass part, of course! Charpentier or his librettist obviously had a good deal of affection for the guy, who is presented as a hardworking monarch who loves his wife dearly.
Orpheus explains that he hasn’t come for the glory of defeating Cerberus or to defy Hades, but only to get back Eurydice. Orpheus’ arguments that Eurydice was taken before her time are not particularly convincing (since he blames the Parcae, and the Parcae are the ones who determine your time!), and telling Hades he’ll eventually get Eurydice back anyway is not worthy of Perry Mason, either. But Orpheus finally manages to sway him by reminding Hades of his extreme love for Persephone, which Persephone reinforces by her own songs. Finally, Hades gives in — but he tells Persephone he didn’t do it for Orpheus’ singing, but for her eyes. Awwwwwww.
I should mention that, right in the middle of Orpheus telling about his grief for Eurydice, a loud ambulance drove right by the Cathedral. Luckily, this happened during a pause, so the musicians just kept right on playing until the ambulance had gone. It didn’t break the spell. In a weird way, it actually underlined what was going on in the opera, since he’d just been saying something about her being lost. The mythological figures we were watching were artificial, but the feelings they were talking about were real.
So Hades consented to have Eurydice freed, and warned Orpheus not to look back. (It suddenly occurred to me that there’s an analogy to not committing premarital sex here; if Orpheus really loves Eurydice, he has to resist doing what he wants to do until they reach their goal and it’s suddenly permitted.) Everyone in the underworld rejoices, and sings that for once, Heaven will be jealous of the joy in Hell. (For some reason, I found myself looking past the stage to the crucifix….)
So what about the next bit? It doesn’t exist. Either the opera is unfinished, or Charpentier really wanted to end on a high note. (Not the worst plan, especially if this was written to celebrate married love. It really does have that wedding feeling.)
So we too got to leave on a high note, after clapping a loooooong time for the singers. People didn’t actually do the standing ovation thing until the singers motioned toward the musicians, which was just. I have to say, the singers were good but the musicians were outstanding. I would say more about what they did, but I honestly don’t have the vocabulary. It was very interesting to hear a triple harp in a group instead of as a solo instrument, and I know I’ve never heard a lirone before. It must have been nice for them to get to play something that was “normal” for the time, but not done much in early music circles. I enjoyed the whole thing very much, and the short length and happy ending made the opera more accessible than other baroque operas I’ve heard. I will definitely be looking for more music by Charpentier.
I did have some serious questions about the translation of the libretto, though. If it says “Monarque”, shouldn’t you translate it as “Monarch”? Especially since ‘monarch’ was such a big part of the ideology of the French kings of the day? Hades is not the “Prince of Darkness”, either. His Hell is not the same as the Devil’s, thank kyew, nor is the Devil known for his strong love of family life. (Nitpicky, I know.)
(Here’s some info on the composer of Le Descente de Orphee aux Enfers, Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). Boy, his parents really liked classical history…. Musings on Charpentier and the Guises has some great stuff, including this paper on changes in his treble clefs. This page is partly in French but includes Charpentier’s picture.
There’s a CD of Orphee by Les Arts Florissants as reviewed here. I haven’t heard it, either, but if it’s as good as what I heard Sunday, you’ll enjoy it.