In 1672, Louis XIV granted Jean-Baptiste Lully a royal privilege as the director of the Royal Academy of Music, at the same time signing a document that forbade other composers from presenting large-scale operas. Between that year and his death in 1687, Lully basically produced one major work for the Royal Opera each year, and fiercely protected his monopoly in the French operatic world. Needless to say, this monopoly did not please other composers who might have been capable of writing tragédie lyrique, but were restricted to operatic works on a much smaller scale, usually presented in private establishments where Lully’s interdiction did not reach.
We do not know the exact situation in which Charpentier’s small-scale masterpiece Actéon was first produced. It may have been for the Duchess of Guise, who often presented entertainments in her palatial quarters in Paris, or it may have been written for Louis XIV’s eldest son, for whom Charpentier wrote a number of works, but there is not enough evidence to say for sure. The only surviving score is a hand-written copy in the large Charpentier collection of the Bibliothèque national.
The manuscript calls the work a pastourale (pastoral), suggesting a form that was usually fairly simple, dealing in rather superficial, if entertaining, ideas of love amongst nymphs and shepherds. There are indeed nymphs and hunters in Actéon but otherwise the tone of the work is far removed from the regular fare of pastorals enjoyed by many French aristocrats.
The story is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that remarkable compendium of myths with the common element of transformation, which was so influential in Baroque Europe. The Acteon story is one of the darker episodes, about the hunter who is turned into a deer and then savagely hounded to death by his own hunting dogs. Charpentier was clearly inspired by this tale. In fact, it is quite possible that Charpentier himself (a very fine tenor) may have sung the title role. The opera is a tour de force for the title character, moving from the insouciant and cocky young man who believes he is free from love’s power, to someone who sees himself dangerously transforming and is powerless to stop it. By the time of the magnificent lament at the end, we know we have witnessed a work that, for all its brevity, is the essence of tragedy: moving, inexorable and heartrending.
Rameau’s Pygmalion is also modelled on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and similarly consists of only one act, making a perfect companion piece for the Charpentier. Premiered on August 27, 1748 at the desperate request of the directors of the financially-strapped Royal Academy of Music (according to the Mercure de France, Rameau wrote the work in eight days), the work went on to become one of Rameau’s most popular, with over 200 performances between 1748 and 1781.
And it is not hard to hear and see why. Musically the single acte de ballet has a perfect mix of styles. Following the magnificent and unusual overture, we hear a quintessential French languishing air, as the sculptor realizes he has fallen in love with his own creation. The awakening of the statue displays Rameau’s consummate understanding of orchestral colour; then follows a sequence of dances – ten in all – each with a highly distinctive aspect. There is a soaring aria with chorus, an Italianate bravura aria, and rousing final dances: who could ask for anything more?
– David Fallis
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