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For 17 years, Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643–1704) composed an enormous amount of music for the court of the wealthy, ambitious, and cosmopolitan Marie de Lorraine de Guise. He was part of that court; neither an occasionally hired outsider nor an esteemed, liveried servant (such as Haydn was to the Princes Esterházy), but a courtier lodged in one of the guest rooms in Marie’s opulent residence, the Hôtel de Guise. Charpentier composed both sacred and secular music, the latter category including a number of miniature operas that gave him the audience Lully’s stranglehold on the Paris Opéra withheld. La descente d’Orphée aux Enfers was the last of these works, concluded a few months before Marie’s death in 1688. It is incomplete in manuscript, leaving the action up in the air: Orphée, broken-hearted without his Eurydice, starts to abandon the Underworld, as Pluton’s hardened resolve slowly turns to pity. Presumably the composer discontinued it as he saw no further prospects for its performance. This is unfortunate, as the two completed acts we have are as fine as anything Lully ever composed.
My favorite recording to date has been one that was first featured as part of the Boston Early Music Festival’s Chamber Music series (CPO 777 876-2; Fanfare 38:2) in 2014, with William Christie’s version (now part of a Charpentier collection on Warner Classics 4617582; Fanfare 19:6) a runner-up. Sébastien Daucé’s new release offers formidable competition. It is as vivid and stylistically informed as that of the BEMF’s Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, and very similar in tempos and overall shape—save that the BEMF accents rhythms consistently, both vocally and orchestrally, where Daucé prefers a smoother, more cantabile continuum. One other, lesser, difference is the BEMF’s inclusion of Baroque oboes, which add a degree of tartness to the Overture and elsewhere in the score.
The singing honors are about equally divided. Eurydice has little to sing after her attractive “Compagnes fidèles,” but Caroline Weynants (Daucé) is fresh and sweet, while Amanda Forsythe is more varied, making a character out of her brief role. Both handle their figurations with an ease that is delightful to hear. In other secondary parts, Pluton’s “Que cherche en mon palais” finds Douglas Williams (BEMF) good, but Nicolas Brooymans (Daucé) possesses a darker tone with a quicker vibrato, lending more distinction to his part. Dauce’s Apollon, Étienne Bazola, is rich-voiced, dark and free, while Jesse Blumberg (BEMF), though his equal in all other respects, pushes a bit too much for rhythmic emphasis.
The eponymous role of this new Orphée goes to Robert Getchell. I’ve always found Getchell’s tone dry, but he is an imaginative artist with excellent enunciation, and scrupulously attentive to the singing line. Here, however, he is up against Aaron Sheehan, who has a sumptuous tone throughout his range, and is as gifted and stylish an interpreter. It’s instructive to consider the difference of approach they bring to Orphée’s address to Pluton, “Je ne viens point ici.” Getchell sculpts his phrases beautifully and maintains even dynamics until he gets to the line “L’unique et cher object,” when he brings Eurydice into his remarks. At that point he dramatically drops to piano and remains there, giving an impression of great distress. By contrast, Sheehan bows for greater dynamics from the start; and though he softens at “L’unique,” neither does so to the same extent as Getchell nor stays there. He pleads with his full range of tonal color, as Getchell does with his sudden shift in expressive character. Sheehan comes across more as the poet, deploying his arts to convince Pluton; Getchell as the person within the poet, too devastated as yet to put his talents to work. It is a testament to Getchell’s achievement (and that of Daucé) that I ended up not preferring one Orphée to the other.
matters are worth mentioning. First, Harmonia Mundi’s engineering gives more
prominence to its singers relative to the instrumental forces than in most
French Baroque operatic recordings I’ve heard to date, whether on Aparté,
CPO, Alpha, Signum Classics, or other labels that have helped audiences
rediscover these great works. The BEMF’s recording is a bit more distant,
though not to the point of leeching vocal quality. Secondly, the BEMF
version also includes Charpentier’s seldom-recorded La couranne de fleurs
for a very full disc. This La descente is offered by itself, resulting in
poor timings. However, if you’re looking for a recording of La descente, I
urge sampling both of these sets online before making up your mind. Getchell
is by no means easy to dismiss in the lead, and given who he’s up against,
that says a great deal about both what an artist he is and how sensibly
Daucé displays his skills to best advantage.
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