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Les Fêtes vénitiennes, André Campra
OPÉRA-BALLET by André Campra premiered at the Académie royale
de Musique in 1710.
With a prologue and 3 entrées: Le Bal, Les Sérénades and L'Opéra.
The Triumph of Folly over Reason during Carnival
Venice. Carnival appears and invites the crowd to join him for the
festivities. Folly joins him with her retinue of Pleasures and supports his
ambition to amuse and entertain. But a killjoy arrives: Reason. Assisted
by wise Democritus and Heraclitus, she attempts to disenchant the
crowd and warns everybody against the aberrations of Carnival. In
vain: she must leave Venice, letting Folly and Carnival lead the
The Ball
Prince Alamir courts Iphise without revealing his identity. To test the
girl’s sincerity, he swaps his clothes with his servant Themir. A music
master and a dancing master, both French, have been asked to
organize the sumptuous ball given by the prince in the evening. Each
master endeavors to show he is the best and that his art prevails over
the other. Themir, disguised as a prince, is to follow his efforts while
Alamir, dressed up as a servant, puts Iphise to the test by trying to
convince her to accept the love of “Prince” Themir. Iphise is confused
and her despair brings about the revelation: Alamir, delighted to be
loved for himself and not for his rank, proves to be the actual patron of
the festivity. Charmed by the stratagem, Iphise reaffirms her love for
Alamir. Both the prince and his new princess can partake in the ball
light-heartedly. Intermission
Serenades and Gamblers
One evening two anxious and jealous girls meet in a Venetian square:
Isabelle and Lucile have come to catch their unfaithful lover, each one
believing that her lover deceives her with the other. It is indeed one and
the same man, Léandre, but the two rivals find out that a third girl is
involved. They hesitate to unite for revenge, each one thinking that the
other wants to keep Léandre. The gallant is coming with a troupe of
musicians and plays a serenade under the balcony of the one he hopes
to conquer, Irène. From her window, she responds with an Italian tune in
which she calls him a fickle butterfly and spurns him. But Léandre,seeing
a woman approach in the dark, believes that Irène came down to join
him. He assures her that neither Lucile nor Isabelle have ever charmed
him. But it turns out that he actually spoke to the two girls who
eventually reject him forever. He comes to terms with it and rejoins a
troupe of gamblers who celebrate the power of Fortune: she exhibits
the influence of her fickleness on gambling and love alike.
The Opera
In a theater where an opera is to be performed, a new actor enters: this
is of Boreas, who hopes to approach Léontine, a singer he adores.
Adolphe, a singer himself and Damire’s friend, tries to divert the knight
from his venture to no avail. Damire is determined to abduct she who is
to perform the part of Flore this evening before his rival Rodolphe, who
is to attend the performance, abducts her. It turns out that Léontine is
really in love with Damire. Tired of pretending, she wishes to be sincere
despite the admonitions of her colleague Lucie who appreciates the
duplicity of their situation. The singing master arrives to make Léontine
rehearse her part. But he also loves her and shows his jealousy of
Rodolphe, who is waiting for Léontine backstage. The performance
begins with Rodolphe in attendance: it is a pastoral featuring shepherds
and shepherdesses with Zéphire and Flore, the latter played by
Léontine. The entertainment is interrupted by the untimely arrival of the
god of wind Boreas, who abducts Flore with the help of the north winds.
While Zéphire mourns over Flore’s disappearance, Lucie declares that
the performance cannot go on since Léontine has truly been abducted,
not by Boreas but by he who was acting him: Damire! Rodolphe, furious
of having been abused, can only leave the theater and run to the port
as the two lovers are about to leave Venice.
The carnival ends and life is back to normal again… or so it seems!
After the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1687 the Paris Opéra
(Académie royale de musique), which he established under the aegis of
Louis XIV, strings one premiere after another during a few years.
Contrary to what one might think, it is an indication that the PalaisRoyal institution is going badly. Nobody can indeed replace the author
of Atys and discomfitures succeed one another. As the seasons go by,
only two tragedies en musique appeal to the public: Thétis et Pelée by
Collasse (1689) and Didon by Desmarets (1693).
However, in 1695 Collasse, the maestro’s former conductor, finds a trick:
by recycling Lully’s scores, he invents a new opera genre, opéra-ballet,
and achieves a lasting success with Les Saisons.
A few months earlier André Campra arrived in Paris and became music
director at Notre-Dame de Paris at age 34. The solemnity of his office
does not prevent him from being fascinated by secular forms and Italian
music, highly prized by the aristocratic salons he moves in. In 1697
ingenious Houdar de La Motte provides him with a libretto to an original
opéra-ballet, L’Europe galante. With this title, Campra perfects the new
operatic formula by brilliantly debuting at the Opéra: “None of Lully’s
operas has been so much followed as L’Europe galante,” declares Le
Cerf de la Viéville. This success, incompatible with his official activity,
will cost Campra his position: “When our archbishop learns that
Campra makes an opera, then Campra will decamp!”
A composite genre, opéra-ballet displays self-contained acts, each
based on an independent plot summed up by a title. It is called an
entrée de ballet, the dramaturgy combining singing and dance equally.
In opéra-ballet, not only does dance gain a status equal to singing,
which will enable dancers to dazzle the Enlightenment, but also favors
the advent of comedy in an institution that has rejected it. Comedy,
which means familiar themes, actual locations and circumstances – such
as the Carnival of Venice, famous throughout Europe for its
licentiousness – and realistic characters who are likely to dance, unlike
gods and heroes for whom dance is inappropriate. Half a century later,
Noverre will manage to reconcile choreography with tragedy.
lthough the official genre, necessarily tragic, remains with a few titles by
Destouches and Marais, although Campra – who became conductor at
the Opéra – reforms it with his Tancrède in 1702, Louis XIV’s subjects,
tired of a stifling end of reign, swear by opéra-ballet. They are
enthusiastic over Destouches’s Le Carnaval et la Folie in 1704. His
mentor Campra triumphs on 17 June 1710 with Les Fêtes vénitiennes,
interspersed with borrowings as veiled references to the audience and
to Lully, Marais and Destouches.
The prologue to the work is entitled “Le Triomphe de la Folie sur la
Raison”. At the time, folly emblematizes creative fantasy claimed by
authors of comedies and all those who believe in the need for
entertainment: its allegory governs numerous ballets and comedies
lyriques.The prologue is followed by three entrées: “La Fête des
barquerolles”, “Les Sérénades et les Joueurs” and “L’Amour
saltimbanque ou les Saltimbanques de la place Saint-Marc”. Written by
pragmatic authors such as Campra and his librettist Antoine Danchet,
opéra-ballet is not a rigid but a dynamic form. By July a new entrée, “La
Fête marine,” is substituted for the first one. In August the prologue is
suppressed and “Le Bal ou le Maître à danser” is announced as second
entrée. In September the third entrée becomes “Les Devins de la place
Saint-Marc”. The evenings being lengthened as autumn sets in, the
prologue is restored in October with the addition of a fourth entrée,
“L’Opéra ou le Maître à chanter”, which includes a pleasant play within
a play. In December a fifth entrée, ”Le Triomphe de la Folie”, is added.
Thus, for six months in a row Danchet and Campra maintain Les Fêtes
vénitiennes on stage while stimulating the public. The Opéra had not
experienced such a long run since Lully’s successes as shown by the
parody Les Fêtes parisiennes, written by Fuzelier and premiered at the
Saint-Germain fair on 2 February 1711, and the publication by Ballard,
“the sole printer of the King’s music,” in 1714. From then on, Campra
prevailed in French music, especially during the seasons of the Opéra:
the revival of Les Fêtes vénitiennes alternated with his new creations
until the reign of Louis XV who established him in 1723 with an office at
the Royal Chapel. “While Cinna is performed once or twice, Les Fêtes
vénitiennes are played during three months”, grumbled Voltaire.
The Opéra revived Les Fêtes vénitiennes in various configurations in
October 1712, March 1713, July 1721, July 1729, June 1731, July 1740, July
1750 and August 1759 for long runs each time. Some events marked
these revivals: 1712 saw the premiere of Campra’s Idoménée, whose
libretto by Danchet was to be reemployed by Mozart; admirable Marie
Sallé debuted in Les Fêtes in July 1721 at age 14; one month later the
public was given a free performance to celebrate Louis XV’s
convalescence; in 1729 Campra announced new music fragments: the
most famous parody, written by Favart, premiered on 30 August 1740 at
the Opéra Comique of the Saint-Laurent fair under the title Les Fêtes
villageoises; lastly, Casanova attended this classic of the French
repertoire during his Parisian stay in 1750.
Les Fêtes vénitiennes left the Opéra in 1760, after 300 performances,
sixteen years after Campra’s death. Then one of the most consensual
and fruitful works of the Enlightenment disappeared, the symbol of a
cheerful and gallant society – longing for more truth and sensuality in
the art of its time – that overwhelmingly turned to the Opéra Comique.
Completely absent from 19th century opera houses, Campra became an
object of study for the pioneers of the musical Ancien Régime,
fascinated by his adventurous life and dazzled by his fruitfulness: Arthur
Pougin in Le Ménestrel in 1833 and Lionel de La Laurencie in L’Année
musicale in 1911. In the 20th century the Aix-en-Provence Festival
resurrected Le Carnaval de Venise under the baton of Michel Plasson in
1975. In the early 1990s two conductors endeavored to promote
Campra: Jean-Claude Malgoire with his ensembles, initiating the first
modern production of Les Fêtes vénitiennes in Metz, Montpellier and
Tourcoing in 1991 with François Raffinot; and William Christie with his
Arts Florissants. Les Arts Florissants were the first to record Idoménée
in 1992. More recently, the 350th birthday of the composer in 2010 led
to special events throughout France, including Versailles.
Recreating an opéra-ballet is a seemingly impossible task today as the
genre brings about the most ambitious juncture between singing and
dance. Yet William Christie and Robert Carsen with Ed Wubbe and
their ensembles, les Arts Florissants and Scapino Ballet Rotterdam, will
find at the Opéra Comique the historical memory of these gallant
festivities out of which Campra and Favart simultaneously devised a
dramatic genre.