Boston Early Music Festival - Charpentier Opera

Notes on French Baroque Opera

Robert Holliston

The historical event usually associated with the beginning of the Baroque era in music is the appearance of "opera" in Florence during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At first an aristocratic entertainment, this new genre of music theatre quickly captured the attention of pleasure-seeking commoners, and in 1637 the first public opera house was built in Venice, then as now an attractive destination for tourists eager to spend their lire on fashionable evenings out.

As Venetian troupes began to tour, the public's appetite for opera grew ever more ravenous, not only throughout Italy, but elsewhere in Europe. In Innsbruck the Archduke of Tyrol had a Venetian-style opera house built in 1654, and as the Habsburg emperors from Leopold I to Maria Theresia loved the pomp and glory of opera, Austria became a major center for its production – always in the Italian style, of course. A public opera house was built in Hamburg in 1678 (less than thirty years later the young Handel would have his first success here), and the Italian style would reign in the German-speaking lands until the early 19th century.

In 1654, an Italian company was invited to Paris, but despite considerable enthusiasm for the performance – the public was dazzled by the elaborate stage machinery – the new genre was not immediately accepted in France. There are several reasons for this. First, the French already had a long-standing tradition of spoken theatre – the tragédie – which the addition of music and singing could only corrupt. Second, there was in the French national psyche a deeply entrenched mistrust of outside influences, especially Italian ones, and while many French musicians spoke admiringly of Italian playing and music-making, they were determined to protect their own music from its contaminating influence. A third and more practical reason for the French resistance to opera was the language. One of the most striking innovations of Italian opera was and is its use of recitativo – a style of singing in which the rhythm emulates that of speech – as the primary story-telling vehicle. French musicians did not at first believe that this device could accommodate the very different demands of their own language.

One musician initially opposed to the idea of French opera was Jean-Baptiste Lully, himself originally a Florentine who moved to Paris as a youth and became, as do many expatriates, plus français que les Français. Because of his friendship with King Louis XIV, Lully was able to move very rapidly up the social ladder at court, and when the "Sun" King announced his desire to establish an opera in the French style, Lully was poised to become its most significant pioneer.

Officially, French opera begins with the founding of the Académie Royale de Musique (or Paris Opera) in 1669. This got off to a rocky start, but in 1672 Lully seized control and enjoyed a crown-supported monopoly over operatic performances in France for the remainder of his life. Lully could – and did – exclude any rival who threatened his exalted position, including Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a younger contemporary who studied in Italy and was employed by the king's cousin (and later by the future Louis XV). Charpentier had to wait until he was fifty – and Lully had died – before he could get a tragédie en musique performed at court.

Any discussion of French Baroque opera must begin with Lully's contributions, which were considerable. First and perhaps most important, he broke in many significant ways from the Italian style so universally popular and established a genuinely French opera. The subject matter, usually derived from Greek mythology, was chosen and redesigned to pay elaborate homage to King Louis.

Récitative and aria alternate fluidly, and many purely instrumental numbers allow for extensive use of dance (another deeply cherished French tradition was the ballet, and foreign composers eager to crack the Parisian market would revise their operas to accommodate this well into the 19th century). Many of the dance segments in Lully's operas attained independent success as instrumental suites which were widely imitated.

The overall musical demeanor is a regal one – even the many pastoral scenes have a decidedly poised, aristocratic bearing – but always fresh, buoyant, and appealing to the listener. The orchestra consists chiefly of strings – in 5 parts – but also extends to woodwinds, brass and percussion when appropriate to the action on stage. By all accounts Lully led both singers and players with strict professionalism, with the result that the Paris Opéra orchestra was among the most widely admired in Europe.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (c. 1634-1704) never held a position in the musical establishment of Louis XIV, but his great artistry, industry, and versatility earned him several important posts in Paris and considerable renown during his life. (It is worth recalling that Charpentier was not the only Baroque composer who languished in obscurity until after the Second World War – another was Antonio Vivaldi.)

After studying in Rome under the great Italian master Giacomo Carissimi, Charpentier returned to Paris where he was employed by Marie de Lorraine, the Duchess of Guise. Mlle. de Guise, upon inheriting her family's fortune in 1675, moved into the Hôtel de Guise in the Marais district of Paris, where she maintained one of the largest and most accomplished musical establishments in France.

Although much of the music Charpentier composed for Mlle. de Guise was sacred, the pious noblewoman's association with the Royal Court allowed him not only to write but to stage secular theatrical entertainments, among them La descente d'Orphée aux enfers. In addition to his work for Mlle. de Guise, Charpentier was also closely associated with the theatrical troupe of Molière, later to become the Comédie Française; ultimately he provided music for approximately 30 theatre pieces.

Although Charpentier is in many ways representative of his time, his music thus sharing characteristics with Lully's, he is always profoundly sensitive to text and to drama; thus his music, both sacred and secular, is arrestingly personal. His gift for creating appealing melodies (often enriched with inner tunes); for creating contrast of mood and color; for employing the instrumental resources available to him with infinite imagination and care; for balancing the elements of musical storytelling – singing, playing, dancing – all combine to make him one of the most attractive and accessible of French Baroque composers. Ideally for small theatres, his dramatic works tend to be less elaborate and large-scale than Lully's – and less long!


La descente d'Orphée aux Enfers
La Couronne de Fleurs

by Marc-Antoine Charpentier

March 14 & 15, 2014
8 pm
McPherson Playhouse


Buy Tickets for Orphée


Scene from La descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, Photo: André Costantini

Scene from Boston Early Music Festival production of La descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, Photo: André Costantini

Scene from La descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, Photo: André Costantini

Scene from Boston Early Music Festival production of La descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, Photo: André Costantini