Reinoud Van Mechelen on Charpentier
Most people have heard of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, but the two pieces on Reinoud van Mechelen's recent album (with the combined forces of his own ensemble A Nocte Temporis and Lionel Meunier's Vox Luminis) might be less well-known. The French Baroque composer Charpentier wrote two contrasting dramatic works drawing on the legend of Orpheus, both of which also served as very convenient vehicles for the composer himself as a high tenor soloist of some renown.
I spoke to Reinoud about the unique sound of the haute-contre voice that features centrally in both these pieces, and about the landscape of French Baroque opera in general.
The obviously striking thing about these two works is that they’re both settings of the same myth. The Orpheus story certainly seems to have been central to the early development of opera, and remains a popular subject to this day; were other French composers also writing their own adaptations of it in Charpentier’s time?
It’s a very important story in the history of opera, since it’s about music itself and the power of music. It’s the perfect reason to write an opera. It’s also a good story; I read a lot of summaries of Baroque opera plots and they’re not always very strong! As for France, as far as I’m aware Lully didn’t write an Orpheus story but his son did. So it’s not quite as popular as it was in Italy, where of course there’s the Monteverdi but also the first real operas by Peri and Caccini, which are named Euridice but of course both tell the story of Orpheus. I don’t know if it was as fashionable in France at that time, but it was certainly a story that everybody knew.
The unique timbre of the haute-contre voice – Charpentier himself having been an accomplished example – is central to both these works. How did this voice-type become so strongly associated with French music, and not so much elsewhere in Europe?
First of all, it’s important to state that from my point of view the haute-contre is definitely just another name for a high kind of tenor; it uses mostly the high parts of the voice but it’s very clearly a tenor. The previous recording of this cantata casts a countertenor, but you can hear that countertenors have to deal with the music in a very complex way because for them it’s so low. In solo parts it’s not so bad - it’s actually in the choir parts that it’s particularly tiring to sing all this high-lying music. At any rate, for me it’s very clear that it’s a tenor voice. Maybe you could argue that it’s a specific subtype of tenor? But looking at the history of how composers have written for this voice, even up to people like Benjamin Britten, I think it’s undeniable. The last recording my ensemble made was centred around this voice as well – specifically around Louis Gaulard Dumesny, a haute-contre who sang for Lully – and we’re working on more future albums for this voice, to combine famous music and less-known works.
So why was it so important in France? In fact the answer is quite simple: it’s that in Italy they had castrati, who were very important musically. This practice was also exported to England and to Germany at various times, so in those countries the castrato voice was key and took a lot of the operatic roles that could otherwise have been for tenor. As a result there’s not a lot of tenor in the operas from those countries – though there’s more in oratorio writing.
And of course the French knew that there were castrati and I think occasionally there were castrati doing concerts or other things in France – Lully himself was Italian, and Charpentier studied there – but the French wanted to be different in their operas, and one of the ways they achieved this was by avoiding the use of castrati. So then the question became who would sing the roles that we call the jeunes premiers; and quite quickly, for Lully at least, the answer became clear: it would be the haute-contre who sang those important roles.
A couple of decades before writing these works, Charpentier had been studying under the Roman master Carissimi. How much of that style do you hear coming through in his Orphée settings here, and how different do they feel from Monteverdi’s well-known Orfeo - a role which you’ve also performed?
It’s difficult to say; Monteverdi’s Orfeo is just so much earlier, more than fifty years ahead of Charpentier. For me, in terms of country-specific influences, when you’re completely in the piece it’s not always easier to hear these. Sometimes it is, of course – with something German, say Handel, in Messiah you can hear very clearly the influences and indeed the Frenchness of the overture. Here, though, when we’re dealing with chamber opera: the styles are more mixed and it’s already completely different from Monteverdi.
What I find very special, especially in the cantata, is this kind of mix of styles; it’s hard to place it in time. It starts very polyphonically with the instruments. Of course, the violin is very important, and is denoted as violon d’Orphée, as if Orpheus himself is playing it, but the instruments have a very polyphonic role. It’s like a kind of cloud of sound. There are lines within it, but it’s not a clear case of one instrument playing the top line with the rest accompanying. You have the recorder, the flûte allemande and two violins. This I find very interesting; is it an Italian influence? We could say so, and it reinforces the idea of Charpentier being an Italianate composer, but of course the contrast is with the other major composer of the time, Lully, who actually was Italian and who was crucial in defining the French style!
I find this very interesting; certainly when we think of our own time, when we consider the world to be all one and assume that this is a recent phenomenon. But we can see that even back in Charpentier’s time music was already a link between countries, and the first place where influence from other countries began to be felt was in the arts and music.
This recording sees your own ensemble a nocte temporis collaborating with Lionel Meunier’s Vox Luminis, with the directing shared between you. How did this partnership come about, and how did the music-making work in practice?
It’s true that for A Nocte Temporis, which is just three years old, this was our first collaboration, but Vox Luminis have done it many times before with other ensembles. The project around Orphée is the rebirth of a project that for strategic reasons was delayed, and became transformed into a co-production. I was initially not very happy about this delay but I’m very happy that it’s turned out the way it has. I already knew Lionel Meunier, having worked together with another group in Holland (on La Descente d'Orphée aux enfers) as well as in Vox Luminis for other projects.
So we’re used to each other, which is already good; and while you might think we’re conducting, there’s not really a conductor in the conventional sense. I’d done quite a lot of preparation with the historic French language; naturally Lionel also knows the French style but I have a lot of experience with French music, particularly opera, and for me it was very important to make the music sound very expressive, so we worked together on that basis. I think perhaps Lionel let me take more control in the way the lines were set out, which was then complemented by Vox Luminis’s excellent ensemble sound and Lionel's way of channelling the energies in one direction. I’ve worked with singers with a nocte temporis and I’ve found that you always need to allow some time to develop that kind of sound.
One sometimes forgets the absolutely astonishing extent to which Charpentier’s rival Lully exerted control over the musical landscape at this time, even being able to restrict the size of his rivals’ instrumental resources! How much do you think his state-granted monopoly helped shape the way other composers wrote their music?
Yes, absolutely - precisely because they were simply not allowed to use a bigger orchestra. After Lully died, you immediately get much larger-scale pieces being composed; everyone starts to write tragédies lyriques, and even when they’re writing divertissements they’re using the French orchestra with the three inner parts. (But between Lully and Rameau this changes and is reduced down to two.) The operas at the beginning of the eighteenth century will have that French texture, but while Lully is still in control we can see that they have only two top parts for the simple reason that they were not allowed to write it differently.
So yes, it’s very clear in what they write. It might have also had a practical use as well, both then and now – nowadays, I’m always looking for music that we could perform, but we’re a freelance ensemble, so every person needed in the score is another person you must pay, and it’s important to me to pay people correctly. But this means that it’s very difficult to fund larger works, and it’s easier to produce smaller ones like these. With fifteen soloists, choir and orchestra it’s just too costly and you could easily put on a Charpentier chamber opera instead. They’re not only cheaper, they’re also very, very good music. Lully is great as well, of course, but Charpentier has an extra harmonic richness which I particularly like.
While H488 is a fairly recognisable re-telling of the Orpheus tale, the earlier H471 focuses on the middle of the story, and concentrates mostly on Orpheus musically soothing the tormented souls in the underworld rather than on his search for Eurydice. Why do you think the two works are so different in their scope?
The opera is mostly the traditional story, but with an open ending - either because the third act is missing or because he never finished the piece. Charpentier wrote all his manuscripts down himself because he was so keen to leave his music to posterity, and we don’t find a third act among them. It’s significant that after the second act he writes fin de la seconde acte rather than fin de l’opéra.
Speaking of the cantata – I was initially unsure about whether it was a good idea to pair two such similar pieces together, but as I started to work on the music I saw how different they are. . I think Charpentier was looking for an excuse to write beautiful music with a good text and a good story, and he found it in this very strong scene. Orpheus isn’t doing his famous song to persuade Pluto at this point in the narrative - he’s arriving in the underworld and bringing the joy of his music, first with his violin and then vocally.
These works were in fact composed only a few years apart. Despite this, do you think it’s possible to hear Charpentier’s style changing or maturing between the two?
For me, they’re written very differently from a stylistic point of view, but because of how close they are to each other in time, I don’t see this as an evolution; it’s more of a compositional choice to write the two pieces so differently. To already be specifying flûte à bec and flûte allemande, to have those two different colours in the cantata is interesting; the approach we took in the opera was to investigate the actual musicians who would have played. The score actually refers to the names of specific flute players, so we then tried to find out whether those individuals played the flûte allemande or not, and similar questions.
So no, I don’t hear any stylistic evolution as such. It does raise the question of whether I hear (or should hear!) any evolution in Charpentier more generally. Maybe I don’t always check this sort of thing as precisely as I should in terms of the dates (as one would with Bach or with Mozart). With Charpentier you definitely have later works like Médée where he’s clearly a more mature composer, but in these pieces I don’t really see any clear stylistic development over time. The development comes instead from the choices he made in writing them.