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Charpentier’s Music for Plays by Corneille and Poisson

In 2002, Magnificat presented a program featuring music Marc-Antoine Charpentier had written for stage works by Thomas Corneille and Raymond Poisson. John Powell wrote these very informative program notes for those performances, which reveal another side of Charpentier’s character and the circumstances in which he lived and worked. Powell has written extensively on Charpentier’s works for the stage and recently presented the paper Music, Gesture, and Tragic Declamation in the Scene of the Dancing Demons from Thomas Corneille’s Machine Play Circé (1675) at the symposium Gesture on the French Stage, 1675-1800 at the Festival Oudemuziek Utrecht on 27 July 2010, from which the image below of Henry Gissey’s drawings of the some of the fabulous costumes used at court is drawn. The plays, librettos, and music for the works discussed in this article (and much more) can be found on John’s website.

When, in 1673, Marc-Antoine Charpentier became the principal composer to the King’s Troupe (Troupe du Roy), he became involved in the ongoing struggle between the company’s director and chief playwright, Jean-Baptiste Molière, and the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Throughout the 1660s, Molière and Lully had worked closely in providing for the king’s entertainment a series of multi-generic experiments that combined theater, ballet, vocal numbers, choruses, and machine effects. But by the spring of 1672 Lully had decided that his own future lay in opera. Having witnessed the successes of Perrin and Cambert with pastoral opera, Lully set about obtaining the royal opera privilege and, thereafter, a series of draconian decrees designed to protect his monopoly and reduce his musical competition.

Molière soon found another musical colleague in Charpentier, recently returned from Rome and his studies with Giacomo Carissimi. The revivals of earlier collaborations with Lully (La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas, Le Mariage forcé) with new music by Charpentier led to a full-scale comedy-ballet, Le Malade imaginaire. This devastating musical satire would be the playwright’s last work—for during its fourth performance Molière, playing the leading role of the hypochondriac Argan, fell ill during the finale and died at his home shortly thereafter. Thereafter, musical life in Parisian theater was a struggle to survive in the face of Lully’s active opposition.

Charpentier continued on as the leading composer the Troupe du Roy after Lully evicted the actors from their theater. On 17 March 1675, the company premiered Circé, the first in a series of new machine-plays given at their new playhouse, the Théâtre de Guénégaud. Struggling to survive after Molière’s death and to justify its existence in the shadow of Lully’s Académie Royale de Musique, the actors deployed all of their scenic, musical, and choreographic resources in this spectacular and expensive production.

Whereas Louis XIV did not come personally to see it, the Gazette reported that on 4 October 1675 the king’s younger brother, together with his wife and their daughter Louise, attended a performance, and that “Their royal highnesses were marvelously satisfied with this fine spectacle, whose stage décor, aerial flights, and machines were extraordinary.”  Pierre Bayle concluded that “if they were permitted to perform with music, dance, and instruments according to their imagination, Circé would highly surpass all the operas performed until now.”

Circé brought together a team of dramatists, musicians, and artists who had wide experience in both court and public theater. The play was by Thomas Corneille, younger brother of Pierre Corneille, who would provide the Théâtre de Guénégaud with a series of machine-plays written in collaboration with Donneau de Visé (Circé, L’Inconnu, La Devineresse, and La Pierre philosophale).  De Visé had collaborated with the rival Théâtre du Marais, for which he had written a trilogy of musical machine-plays (Les Amours de Vénus et d’Adonis, Les Amours du Soleil, and Le Mariage de Bacchus et d’Ariane). He returned to the Troupe du Roy during Molière’s last season, and published favorable reviews of their productions in his newly founded gazette, the Mercure Galant.

Charpentier’s position had been established with the success of his music for Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire. The preface of the libretto for Circé (probably written by de Visé) praised “the delicacy of the music, in which Monsieur Charpentier, who has been already admired for the airs of Le Malade imaginaire, has in some way surpassed himself as much by the gracefulness of the symphony as by the noble manner in which he elevates all the words that are sung.” The ballet master Pierre de La Montagne had danced in court ballets and comédies-ballets throughout the 1660s, and with Circé he succeeded Pierre Beauchamps as maître à danser to the Théâtre de Guénégaud. Alexandre, sieur de Rieux, known as the Marquis de Sourdéac, was the scenic designer for Circé. Sourdéac was a nobleman and an amateur engineer whose hobby was designing stage machinery. He had furnished the sets for Perrin’s and Cambert’s pastoral operas, and when the Troupe du Roy relocated to the Hôtel de Guénégaud (Perrin’s former theater) after Molière’s death, the company entered into a turbulent partnership with Sourdéac and his nefarious cohort, the Sieur de Champeron.

Circé required a large number of singers, dancers, aerial artists, and instrumentalists: 6 strings and harpsichord, 10 “marcheurs” (probably so named to circumvent the 1673 prohibition on dancers), 20 aerial artists (voleurs), and 3 professional singers—which the company combined with their own singing actors.  One of the unusual features of Circé was the presence of acrobats in two numbers of the Finale (the “Chœur des divinitez des forets” and the “Rondeau pour trois figures”). For two productions given in 1674-75 (Corneille’s Le Comédien poète and Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire), the Troupe de Guénégaud had engaged a company of “sauteurs” directed by Charles Alard, the celebrated acrobat of the Théâtre de la Foire; thus it seems likely that Alard choreographed the acrobatic “figures” cued in Charpentier’s score.

Corneille’s mythological play is framed by a prologue and finale, with musical entr’actes articulating the overall dramatic structure.  Acts 1-4 all contain divertissements drawn from traditions common to the pastoral and burlesque ballet:  songs by satyrs, shepherds, shepherdesses, dryads, and fauns, and dance-pantomimes by monkeys and furies.  Moreover, the acts of the play are separated by ballet entr’actes, no doubt performed by the ten “marcheurs” that are listed in the company’s account books.  The play ends with a miniature ballet performed by the divinities of the forests and the seas.

In the Prologue Mars, Fortune, Love, and Fame complain of the honor Louis XIV is receiving.  They are convinced by Glory that it is useless to oppose him, and that they will profit by doing his bidding.  After three spoken scenes featuring Mars, Fortune, Fame, Cupid, and Glory, the Pleasures and the Liberal and Mechanical Arts  make their balletic entrance in the temple built by Glory for Louis XIV.

In the first act, Glaucus, a sea-god, has disguised himself as a Thracian prince in order to make love to Silla, who cares only for Mélicerte; but this Theban prince has disappeared and fallen in love with the sorceress Circe. Piqued by Glaucus’s indifference, Circe tries to win his love. After whisking through the air some satyrs who have been annoying her nymphs, Circe takes Glaucus to her palace in a chariot drawn by dragons. There she shows her indifference to Mélicerte’s love lament and offers her love to Glaucus.  When he remains faithful to Silla, Circe brings animals against him; but he makes them sink into the earth. The statues she animates meet with the same fate.  Circe sends Mélicerte a ring that makes him return to his love of Silla, bids that Silla continue to refuse Glaucus, and carries her off in a cloud.  Glaucus appeals to Venus, who sends some cupids to rescue Silla. Circe, finding herself powerless against Glaucus, resolves to punish him by means of the girl he loves. She first charms her so that she prefers Glaucus to Mélicerte and, when Mélicerte protests, she turns him into a tree. Then Circe makes Silla appear hideous by attaching monsters to her body. Silla leaps into the sea and Circe disappears with her palace; but Glaucus appeals to Neptune, who changes Silla into a rock and gets the consent of Jupiter and Destiny to her becoming a Nereid.  Glaucus is not allowed to marry Silla, however—for her love, caused by Circe’s charm, has departed.

Construction of the sets, stage machines, and the special magic effects required by the play began in October of 1674—a full six months before the première. The unusually high production costs caused some division among the actors and delayed the production. But with the première on Sunday, 17 March 1675, Circé proved to be highly profitable, and for one performance (31 March) the gross receipts reached a record 2775 livres. Years later, de Visé described the extraordinary popularity of this work in the Mercure Galant: “It is noteworthy that during the first six weeks the auditorium was completely filled from noon on, and that as no seats could be found, spectators gave a half louis d’or at the door solely to be admitted, and were content when, for the same sum paid for the lower boxes, one might be placed in the third balcony. Circé received 9 performances before the 1675 Lenten break, and was given 67 more times during the 1675-76 season. De Visé asserts that the production would have run longer “if the interests of one individual [i.e., Lully] has not made them cut back on singers.”

Five years later, the Troupe du Roy were joined by royal decree with the rival actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. This new company, known as La Comédie-Française, consisted of fifteen actors and twelve actresses—of which five of its new members were already accomplished playwrights.  Raymond Poisson wrote their first new comedy, Les Fous divertissants, which premiered on 14 November 1680.  This in fact was a full-scale comedy-ballet, conceived in the spirit of Molière’s final musical/balletic works and with an extensive score composed by Charpentier.

We will recall that, after he acquired the opera privilège, Lully sought to protect his monopoly by restricting the amount of music allowed in public theaters other than his own. By this time companies were limited to two singing actors, six string players, and no dancers of any kind. However, with the consolidation of the rival theaters into a single, state-subsidized institution, it would appear that a new spirit of détente arose between the Académie Royale de Musique and the Comédie-Française, and Lully’s restrictions on music and dance clearly were relaxed for this production.  In addition to the two singing lovers of the play (Léandre and Angélique, played by the actors de Villiers and perhaps Mlle Molière), three other singing actors (Verneuil, Guérin, and La Grange) performed in the intermèdes.  Moreover, Lully allowed the Comédie-Française to include parodies of excerpts from his latest two operas, Bellérophon (1679) and Proserpine (1680).

Poisson’s Les Fous divertissants followed in a series of lunatic plays that were very popular in the 17th century, and from which he borrowed freely. From Cervantes La Cueva de Salamanca Poisson derived many of his plot details—the warden’s departure, Angélique’s hypocritical farewell, the arrival of Léandre and the soldier, the husband’s unexpected return, and the use of a magical trick to rescue Léandre and the meal from a place of concealment.  Much of the dialogue for Act 3 was borrowed from the short story by Antoine Le Metel, sieur d’Ouville, entitled “Un jeune Advocat qui jouyt de la femme d’un bourgeois sous prétexte d’estre devin” (1643). And he followed Charles Beys’s L’Hospital des fous (1636) by introducing a concièrge who displays the lunatics for the public’s entertainment, and in introducing a young lover pretending to be mad to be near his beloved.

In the excerpt performed here, Monsieur Grognard, the warden of the asylum, departs to attend to his dying brother, and the inmates take this opportunity to throw a party.  Four dancing and three singing lunatics enter to the music of a march, and then one of them urges the young lovers in song to profit from her fiancé’s absence.  Meanwhile, the inmates show joy in their new found freedom in a dance, Les Fous déchaînés—for which Charpentier’s music suggests the effect of derangement by the abrupt juxtaposition of the triple-meter minuet with the furious, duple-meter pantomime.  In the next entrée, Les Geôliers, some keepers arrive to lock up the madmen, and the intermède ends with a manic “laughing trio” of infectious hilarity.

In the third act, Angélique’s lover Léandre has planned a banquet for her, for which the lunatics will provide the entertainment.  But first, he wishes to sing a little song that he has composed (“Ce n’est qu’entre deux Amans”), and asks that she respond with a minuet (“Quand la flame”).  Angélique’s maid Jacinte then brings news that their respective fathers have consented to their marriage.  When Grognard unexpectedly returns, he finds a soldier billeted in his home; he then requests something to eat, but is told that there is nothing in the house.  The soldier, having seen Léandre’s feast being brought in, pretends to be a magician, and he commands a “demon” to appear from the armoire carrying some roasted meat; then he summons the inmates to perform the concert that Léandre had prepared for Angélique.  Grognard fails to see the relevance of the first chanson (“Bacchus et l’Amour font débauche”—Bacchus & Cupid are living it up), and is mystified by the outburst of laughter caused by the even more transparent lyrics of the second song (“…the fat rogue, the drunken babbler, the big windbag, the decrepit old fool…pull the wool over his eyes, the ugly owl, the werewolf, the old hooter, the foolish cuckold”). The soldier then commands the demon to take the form of Léandre–who then departs with Angélique.  Jacinte tells Grognard of the trick, and informs him that Angélique and Léandre are to be married.  He summons his valets, only to find that the lunatics have locked them in their cells and are coming after Grognard.  The play ends with a lively ballet put on by the lunatics—consisting of a Marche des fous, a récit addressed to lovers (“Amans, vous faites bien de quitter ce sejour”), an entrée for eight fools “with caps and bells,” and a “dialogue de deux Fous amoureux” (“Je ne sçaurois vivre sans toy”).

Though Poisson’s plot is derivative, the play is remarkable for the variety of devices used for entertainment:  magic-effects, farce, drinking-songs, ballet, opera.  While it seems to have been well-received at the time of its premiere (one performance brought in over 1500 livres), the Comédie-Française gave Les Fous divertissants only eleven times between November 14 and December 2, 1680, and three times the following year.  It achieved greater success after Poisson’s death, when Florent Carton Dancourt reduced it to a one-act comedy entitled Le Bon Soldat—in which form it was performed 197 times during the early 18th century.

Charpentier, Corneille, and de Visé collaborated on four musical machine-plays for the Théâtre de Guénégaud and the Comédie-Française during 1675-81:  Circé (1675), L’Inconnu (1675), Le Triomphe des Dames (1676), and La Pierre philosophale (1681). Whereas their first three works enjoyed long and successful runs, La Pierre philosophale played there only twice (on 23 and 25 February) during Carnival of 1681.  Evidently its creators miscalculated the interests of the Parisian public with this satire on the popular cult of the ‘Cabalistes’ (Rosicrucians), for not even the spectacular machine-effects could save the production from failure.  It was soon withdrawn, and Corneille’s play was never published; all that survives is the printed libretto and Charpentier’s music.

The plot centers on a Marquis, who brings about two marriages by taking advantage of a bourgeois’s naïve belief in the occult. Monsieur Maugis and Madame Raimond are squandering their fortunes trying to discover the secret of the philosopher’s stone.  Maugis intends to use the stone’s power to regain his youth, whereupon he will marry Madame Raimond’s daughter Angélique.  Moreover, Maugis plans to give his own daughter, Marianne, to a Chevalier who seems interested in their experiments.  However, the Chevalier is merely pretending to be interested in order that he may marry Angélique himself, while Marianne loves a Marquis who plans to thwart her father’s plans. The Chevalier persuades Maugis to join the order of the Rosicrucians, and makes him believe that, when a member, he must not marry Angélique, but rather one of the invisible elemental spirits (a gnomide), while his daughter may be united to a silphe (actually the Marquis in disguise).

Act 4 takes place in the home of the Comte de Gabalis, a German residing in France who has offered to introduce Maugis to the mysteries of the Rosicrucians. Charpentier’s music accompanies the appearance of “a machine composed of four elements, of the height of a Mount Parnassus,” whereby the spirits associated with the four elements provide the music for this occult ritual. First, a Choeur des Quatre Éléments celebrates the victory of love in song and dance (‘Les sages par un choix heureux’), then a smaller group of these elements address themselves to the little gnomide, whom Maugis (knowing that gnomides guard treasures) has chosen as his wife (‘Vous, sur qui de cet heureux choix’). The little gnomide sings and dances a menuet to celebrate her forthcoming wedding (‘Le bel âge’), and the Marquis, disguised as a silphe, approaches Marianne and invites her to accept him as her spouse (‘Je suis un élément léger’). The four elements then dance, and Fire and Water concur that love has the power even to bring opposites together (‘Le Spectacle est assez beau’).  M. Maugis expresses his pleasure with these signs of rejoicing—but he begs his little gnomide to grow taller. She then disappears into the ground, and a large figure gradually emerges to the musical encouragement of the Choeur des Quatre Éléments (‘Croissez, gnomide, croissez’). Maugis is so astonished by this metamorphosis that he can scarcely believe his eyes.  Eventually the gnomide becomes jealous of Angélique, whom her mother later gives to the Chevalier. The Marquis (still disguised as a silphe) offers to appease the gnomide in exchange for Marianne’s hand, and at the end the parties go off to sign the marriage contracts.