André Campra - Les Fêtes Vénitiennes
Opéra Comique, 2015
William Christie, Robert Carsen, Emmanuelle de Negri, Élodie Fonnard, Rachel Redmond, Emilie Renard, Cyril Auvity, Reinoud Van Mechelen, Marcel Beekman, Marc Mauillon, François Lis, Sean Clayton, Geoffroy Buffière
Culturebox - 30 January 2015
So far, André Campra's operas haven't received as much attention as the two French royal court appointed composers on either side of his career, Lully and Rameau. As the person responsible to a large degree for the revival of interest in many of the great forgotten French works those two composers, with academically informed performances on period instruments, it's great to see how William Christie and Les Arts Florissants' interpretation of Campra's most famous and emblematic work compares. Having also directed a number of stage productions of Lully and Rameau for Christie to terrific effect (Armide, Les Boréades, Platée), Robert Carsen's production of Les Fêtes Vénitiennes for the Opéra Comique in Paris combines with Christie's interpretation to present the work in as spectacular and entertaining a way as you might expect.
Lully's beautiful tragédies-lyriques might have been a hard act to follow, but at least as far as Les Fêtes Vénitiennes goes, Campra manages to retain what is good about Lully's work - principally the splendour and the rhythmic pulse of the dance music - without the longeurs that go along with it. There's a Prologue here invoking the Gods that leads to conflict among mortals, but none of the lengthy praises to the Sun God, Louis XIV, that open Lully's tragédies-lyriques. And instead of one long mythological subject drawn out and interspersed at every opportunity with dances and choral pieces, Campra hits upon a more accessible format that would later become known as the opéra-ballet.
It's a format that if it is recognisable at all now, it will be because of Rameau's similarly frivolous portmanteau entertainment of Prologue and Entrées, Les Indes Galantes. The style was perhaps hit upon accidentally by Campra during the first performances of Les Fêtes Vénitiennes in 1710, the work evolving as it was performed, with some new episodes added and old ones dropped, according to their popularity with audiences. The intent is clearly that this is all in the name of entertainment and spectacle, and Les Fêtes Vénitiennes is as lively and entertaining as they come.
In keeping with the spirit of the work, it would be a mistake to over-extend the piece by showing as many of the Entrées as possible, but rather it's more important to try to retain the variety and concision of the original. From the 4 Prologues and 9 Entrées available then, Christie selects one Prologue ('The Triumph of Folly over Reason') and 3 of the Entrées ('The Ball or the Dance Master', 'The Serenades and the Gamblers' and 'The Opera or the Singing Master'). There's a certain amount of cross-over between the four parts - and, of course Carsen and Christie focus on the 'theatrical' theme - but really the only real connection linking the different interchangeable parts of the works is that they all fit within the rather open concept of being based around the celebrations of the Carnival in Venice.
The Prologue opens with a group of modern-day tourists visiting St Mark's Square and being taken with the colourful pageantry of the Carnival, abandoning Reason to the Folly of the festivities, much to the displeasure of the religious orders. This allows the work to then fall back on a stylised imagining (no more authentic I imagine than Campra's original vision) of the exaggerated colour, exotic locations and all the pleasure-seeking and romance associated with Les Fêtes Vénitiennes. In Le Bal, a wealthy prince wants to test the constancy of a young Venetian woman he is in love with, exchanging positions with his Dance Master to see if she truly loves him or is only interested in wealth and position. Les Sérénades features two women, Isabella and Lucile, both of them competing for the love of Léandre, who is really in love with another beauty, Irène. L'Opéra also deals with love affairs, where a group of opera singers love-lives become enmeshed in the opera they are singing.
Most of the Entrées are played out in a fairly straightforward manner here, albeit in highly-stylised sets and wearing boldly-coloured and extravagant costumes. There are a few characteristic twists - Fortune for example dressed (or semi-undressed) as a walking Casino - but they all remain in the spirit of the work and within the context of the Venetian setting. There's some recognition that L'Opéra ou le maître à chanter, with its opera-within-an-opera setting, is a kind of baroque Ariadne auf Naxos and perhaps some parody of Lully's operas is implied, so we get all kinds of theatrical tricks, even dancing sheep. In the main however, the idea is simply to get as much of the entertaining variety that makes the work a delight to watch, with frequent dances, colourful costumes, clever stage craft, choruses, duets and arias.
Some of the pieces take a little longer to get going, the final L'Opéra Entrée in particular requiring quite a bit of recitative to set up its plot, but in terms of the variety of the selections and their individual make-up, their purpose is clear, their balance of singing, ballet dancing and spectacle all seeking to entertain. Carsen provides the context for that marvellously, but the real test of the work is in the musical performances and the singing, and the production doesn't let us down on those points. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants bring all the inherent vibrancy out of the work and it's simply marvellous to hear on period instruments, Campra's arrangements, particularly the ballet sections, having a popular folk-dance character that sounds closer to Cavalli than the rather more stately regal rhythms of Lully and Rameau.
The singing is also outstanding, many of these singers well-schooled in the Arts Florissants style, with much experience in the music of this period. Some of the familiar names playing multiple roles, as is often the case in such works, are Marc Mauillon, baritone François Lis as Léandre and Emmanuelle de Negri as Reason, Lucile and Lucie, all of them wonderful. Élodie Fonnard also makes a terrific impression in the eye-catching role of Fortune as well as playing Iphise in L'Opéra, and Reinoud Van Mechelen wonderful light lyrical tenor shines out in the countertenor roles of Thémir and Zéphir. With so much talent packed into such variety of scenes and situations, there's never a dull moment here.
Links: Culturebox, L'Opéra Comique