Ars Lyrica Houston 2019/20 Season: National Treasures
Dancing at the Palais: Program Notes
Notes on the music
by Matthew Dirst & John S. Powell
Though dance is much older than opera, they’ve been good friends since the latter’s invention in the early seventeenth century. Their most durable and perhaps most felicitous collaboration occurred during the long reign of the French Bourbon kings. This program offers instrumental dance suites and ballets from two such works, one an operatic tragedy and the other a more lighthearted opera-ballet: André Campra’s Hésione and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes galantes.
Opera came somewhat late to France and went its own way from the start, thanks to two Italian favorites of Louis XIV: Giulio Raimondo Mazzarino and Giovanni Battista Lulli. Better known under their adopted French names, Cardinal Jules Mazarin and composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, respectively, their partnership was both politically and artistically expedient. In 1660, to celebrate the king’s impending marriage to Maria Theresa of Spain, Mazarin commissioned an opera from the renowned Venetian composer Francesco Cavalli. The resulting work, Ercole amante (Hercules in Love), was delayed by court intrigue but in 1662 finally produced in Paris; the wedding festivities two years earlier included instead a revival of Cavalli’s Xerse. These first operas in France were effectively hybrids, with Italianate recitatives and arias by Cavalli and French-style dances by Lully.
Despite a mixed reception, the mix of drama, dance, and spectacle in these works set the course for French opera for the next two centuries. Within ten years, Lully had acquired the royal operatic privilege and began producing operas in his adopted language. Strong royal support for the venerable ballet de cour (court ballet) meant that dancing remained a vital component of French opera until the Revolution.
André Campra (1660–1744) launched his career as theatrical composer with two opéra-ballets that became the toast of Paris: L’Europe galante (1697) and Le Carnaval de Venise (1699). With these popular works he became the most significant composer of French opera between the death of Lully (1687) and Rameau’s first opera (1733). Born in Aix-en-Provence, Campra began his musical training as a choirboy and later settled on ecclesiastical studies. Following church positions in Arles and Toulouse, in 1694 Campra assumed the prestigious post of maître de musique at Notre Dame in Paris. By 1698 he was also composing music for Latin tragedies at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand (where Marc-Antoine Charpentier was employed), incidental music for the Comédie-Française, and operas for the Académie Royale de musique (the Paris Opera).
Because church authorities disapproved of such extracurricular activities, Campra tried to hide his authorship of stage compositions when they appeared in print. Thus the first three editions of L’Europe galante appeared anonymously and Le Carnaval de Venise was ascribed to “M. Campra le Cadet” (i.e., his younger brother Joseph Campra). A 1697 chanson shows that this transparent ruse fooled nobody:
When our Archbishop finds out
The author of the new opera,
From his cathedral
Campra will be sent packing.
Quand notre Archevesque scaura
L’Auteur du nouvel Opéra,
De sa Cathédrale
Whether he was found out or resigned of his own volition, in October 1700 Campra left his position at Notre-Dame to follow the siren call of the stage. Two months later Hésione premiered at the Palais-Royal, whose theater (constructed by Louis XIV for performances of Lully’s operas) provided a home for the Paris Opera for many years. By modern standards, its interior was quite small; the intimate space ensured close contact between singers, instrumentalists, and audience.
Antoine Danchet based his libretto for Hésione on a Greek myth about a Trojan princess saved from a sea monster’s grasp, thanks to a bitter bargain her father King Laomedon made with an oracle. Though the original myth credits Hercules with Hesione’s rescue, Danchet made a few additions and some significant changes: most notably, he eliminated the character Hercules and had his friend Telamon rescue Hesione instead. But this opera is, finally, more about the complex dynamics of a love quadrangle that includes Hesione, Telamon, his rival Anchise, and Venus herself.
With Hésione, his first tragédie en musique, Campra repeated the success of his earlier opéra-ballets while deftly negotiating the leap from lighter to more serious subject matter. Its Prologue and five acts showcase a wealth of grand vocal arias, imposing choruses, evocative instrumental music, and tuneful dances. In such a work, each dramatic segment is built around an intense vocal scene or a spectacular divertissement of music and dance. The extant sources for Hésione even offer choreographies for several dances: step notations from the dancer-choreographer Guillaume-Louis Pécour (see p. X) that are among the earliest published dance choreographies. One of these, “Aimable Vainqueur,” became a hugely popular social dance in its day in Europe and the colonies; it’s also the only music from Hésione available on recording. This performance is the modern world première of the collected dance movements in the work, as heard in their original orchestration.
In 1735 the Palais-Royal also hosted the première of Les Indes galantes, which got a fairly cool initial reception. Its composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), had written only one previous work for the stage and hadn’t quite settled into his operatic groove. Known chiefly as a music theorist and keyboard player, Rameau decided at age fifty to redirect his talents toward the stage. Some contemporaries wondered whether this was a good idea: one critic complained that in Hippolyte & Aricie (1733) “there is enough music…to make ten operas.” With Les Indes galantes Rameau tried to show that he could compose dramatic music in a more fashionable vein. After several revisions and revivals, Paris audiences embraced the work enthusiastically; bits and pieces of Les Indes galantes traveled to Versailles, Lyon, even Parma during Rameau’s lifetime. It remains his most best-known opera.
From its première onwards, this opera has been celebrated for its many colorful instrumental dances. Its libretto, by contrast, was dismissed by one critic as “détestable.” One wonders whether its creative team tried a bit too hard to engage European fascination with other cultures: Louis Fuzelier’s libretto for Les Indes galantes (literally, The Amorous Indies) played to an increasingly bored beau monde by putting exotic locales front and center. (For this generation the term “Indies” signified virtually anyplace that wasn’t Europe, hence “East Indies” for Asia and “West Indies” for North and South America.) Rameau made the most of these strange settings, with music that is limpid and affecting and always (though sometimes just barely) within the boundaries of good taste.
Despite distinct plot lines and characters for each act, the premise of Les Indes galantes may be summarized as follows. Disappointed by the youth of Europe, who succumb too easily to the lure of glory and warfare, Cupid abandons Europe for the “Indies,” which invites successive entrées in Turkey, Peru, Persia, and North America, respectively. Though filled with entertaining characters and numerous special effects—including a storm, an earthquake, an erupting volcano, a festival of flowers, and a peace pipe ceremony—each entrée is, at its core, a love story.
Just two years after its rocky première, Rameau excerpted from Les Indes galantes five large suites of dances and vocal airs and published them in a simplified arrangement for keyboard and voice. Such publications, common during this era in France and elsewhere, served those who wanted to savor popular music without the distraction of recitatives or the convoluted narratives of Baroque drama. Tonight’s performance includes dance movements, in full orchestral dress, from three of these suites, two of which are graced by dancers trained in period style.
Notes on Baroque dance
by Catherine Turocy
Eighteenth-century ballet technique uses a 90-degree rotation of the legs, a pointed and relaxed foot, complicated pirouettes with varying foot placements, full range leg extensions, various expressive attitudes, plus acrobatic and virtuosic steps for grotesque characters. There are three genres of dance styles: la danse noble et heroique dominates and employs balancing on the points of the toes, the indeterminate pirouette where the dancers spin for as long as possible, graceful attitudes of the body, as well as virtuosic dance passages. The port de bras and high use of the arms are typical of the “high dancing” used on the stage. The dances reconstructed from notations published in 1704 and 1713 for Campra’s Hesione and Rameau’s Prologue for Les Indes Galantes fall into this category. The dances for Les Sauvages are more in la danse demi-caractére style and the more exaggerated and acrobatic Grotesco style is to be found in the dance for the Calumet (peace pipe).
For Les Indes Galantes there is no surviving period dance notation score. In fact, many choreographers were not champions of dance notation, since the system then in use recorded only the steps and not the dramatic action. Hence, I have choreographed the work drawing from my experience in reconstructing period dance notations (over 300), using steps and movement described in the following treatises: Chorégraphie by Raoul Anger Feuillet (Paris, 1700), Louis de Cahusac’s La Danse ancienne et moderne ou Traité historique de la danse (The Hague, 1754), Jean-Georges Noverre’s Lettres sur La Danse et sur Les Ballets (Stuttgart, 1760) and Gennaro Magri’s Trattato teoricoprattico di ballo (Naples, 1779). I have also found Rebecca Harris Warrick’s book, Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera (Cambridge, 2016), to be sensitive to many questions regarding stage direction and period practice.
In my research for Les Sauvages I came to understand that Rameau and other artists would have been familiar with the experiences of the French explorers. Louis Fuzelier, the librettist for Les Indes Galantes, researched the ethnology of the First Nation peoples. This description from Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit explorer in French America, influenced my choreography for tonight’s performance.
As the Calumet was passed around, everyone, at the outset, takes the Calumet in a respectful manner, and, supporting it with both hands, causes it to dance in cadence, keeping good time with the air of the songs. He makes it execute many differing figures; sometimes he shows it to the whole assembly. After that, he who is to begin the dance appears in the middle of the assembly, and at once continues this…as it were, the first Scene of the Ballet.
The second consists of a Combat carried on to the sound of a kind of drum, which succeeds the songs, or even unites with them, harmonizing very well together. The dancer makes a sign to some warrior to come to take the arms which lie upon the mat, and invites him to fight the sound of the drums. The latter approaches, takes up the bow and arrows, and the war-hatchet, and begins the duel with the other, whose sole defense is the Calumet. This spectacle is very pleasing, especially as all is done in cadence; for one attacks, the other defends himself; one strikes blows, the other parries them; one takes to flight, the other pursues; and then he who was fleeing faces about, and causes his adversary to flee. This is done so well—with slow and measured steps, and to rhythmic sound of the voices and the drums—that it might pass for a very fine opening of a ballet in France. The third Scene consists of a lofty discourse, delivered by him who holds the Calumet. (translated by Kate van Winkle Keller, Dance and Music in America, 1528-1789)