Marc-Antoine Charpentier: La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers

Marc-Antoine Charpentier always had an ambiguous relationship with opera. While living in Rome in the late 1660s he had a chance to familiarise himself with this fast-expanding vocal genre. When he returned to Paris, some time around 1670, he was able to witness the creation of the Académie Royale de Musique, followed by the birth of the tragédie en musique, that typically French genre elaborated by Jean-Baptiste Lully over a lengthy period. Although his functions with his new patrons, particularly the Jesuits and the Grand Dauphin, tended to push him in the direction of sacred music, Charpentier was often tempted to write operatic works. Unfortunately, like all his contemporaries, he came up against the hegemony of the jealous Lully, who ensured the doors of the Opéra remained closed to him. It was not until 1693, six years after the Lully’s death, that he finally gained access to that institution; his only tragédie en musique, Médée, was a failure - deemed too dense, too learned. Yet Charpentier’s attraction for musical theatre may be observed throughout his career, in the numerous scores of incidental music, his two biblical tragedies intended for the Jesuit colleges, and above all the divertissements. Charpentier’s divertissements are on a small scale (a few scenes or else short one-act pieces) and conceived for relatively modest forces. Their inspiration is mythological, allegorical or heroic; they mingle light-hearted and dramatic elements. In all these respects, they owe a great deal to the genre of the pastorale en musique, the earliest specimens of which contributed to the rise of French opera. Alongside his motets and histoires sacrées in Latin intended for the devotions of the princess, Charpentier invented for her more secular recreations, small vocal forms sung in French, genuine miniature operas tailor-made for the little company of musicians she maintained at her Parisian town house.

 

These chamber operas, marginal in comparison to the large-scale tragédie en musique cultivated by Lully, occupy a highly individual place in the late seventeenth-century musical landscape. The last short opera Charpentier wrote for the princess, La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers (late 1686-early 1687), constitutes in its breadth and dramatic density a little gem of seventeenth-century French vocal art. References to the myth of the shepherd musician are rare in French literature at that time. Only two eponymous tragedies had appeared before Charpentier’s little opera. In the domain of music, the French usually depicted Orpheus merely in his persona as a player of the lyre, in which he appears in several ballets de cour. Charpentier was therefore one of the first French composers to take up the myth in its full dimensions. He had already produced a version of it in 1683, in a short divertissement called Orphée descendant aux Enfers, which may be regarded as the earliest example of the French cantata, another miniature vocal genre that was to flourish in the aristocratic gatherings of the early eighteenth century. Conceived on a larger scale, La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers unfolds over two acts. The first installs the listener in the bucolic universe typical of the pastorale, peopled by nymphs who have come to celebrate with carefree joy the wedding of Eurydice with the shepherd Orpheus. But Eurydice is mortally wounded by a serpent, and soon sees her strength ebbing away. Her sudden death leaves her companions and Orpheus distraught and tearful. Then Apollo convinces his son to go to beseech Pluto, and try to make him yield to the power of his songs. The more extended Act Two retraces Orpheus’ difficult quest through the Underworld, where he charms first of all the damned souls, in the hope of bringing Eurydice back with him.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier: La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers

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La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Premier Acte: Ouverture

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Premier Acte, Scène 1: Inventons mille jeux divers

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Premier Acte, Scène 1: Compagnes fidèles

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Premier Acte, Scène 1: Soutiens-moi, chère Œnone

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Premier Acte, Scène 2: Ah ! Bergers, c'en est fait

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Premier Acte, Scène 2: Entrée de Nymphes et de Bergers désespérés

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Premier Acte, Scène 2: Lâche amant

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Premier Acte, Scène 3: Ne tourne point, mon fils

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Premier Acte, Scène 3: Que d'un frivole espoir

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 1: Affreux tourments

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 2: Cessez, cessez fameux coupables

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 2: Quelle touchante voix

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 2: Je ne refuse point

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 2: Il n'est rien aux Enfers

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 2: Entrée des Fantômes

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 3: Que cherche en mon palais

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 3: Je ne viens point ici

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 3: Pauvre amant

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 3: Eurydice n'est plus

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 3: Le destin est contraire

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 3: Tu ne la perdras point

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 3: Quel charme impérieux

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 3: Souviens-toi du larcin

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 3: Je cède, je me rends

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 4: Vous partez donc

La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers, H. 488, Second Acte, L'Enfer, Scène 4: Entrée des Fantômes

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