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Author: Agnès Terrier
Paris, April 2017
An all-round spectacle
The last great tragédie en musique or “musical tragedy” of the reign of Louis XIV, Alcyone (Alcione, as the title appears in the 1706 edition) is an all-round spectacle poised between the 17th and 18th centuries. From the 17th century it takes its mythological source, its prologue in praise of the king, its high literary quality and its vocation for spectacle, combining choreography and changes of scenery. In the depth of the emotions experienced by its protagonists, more sensitive than heroic, as well as in the expressiveness of the orchestra which envelopes them in a true sound décor, it ushers in the 18th century.
Structured, like all musical tragedies, in the form of a prologue and five acts, Alcyone was conceived by a successful young librettist, Antoine Houdar de La Motte, and Marin Marais, the most famous violist of his day. The magnificent portrait of Marais by André Bouys was widely distributed at the time in the form of an engraving. At about the age of fifty, Marais had just been appointed to the prestigious position of batteur de mesure (in modern terms, conductor of the orchestra) of the Royal Academy of Music at the Paris Opéra. Alcyone’s premiere on 18th February, 1706, was a major event, both for the composer and for the institution itself, which since 1673 had been installed in the Théàtre du Palais-Royal, at that time the residence of the Duke of Orléans, in what is now the Conseil d’État or Constitutional Council, and which was roughly the same size as the present-day Salle Favart, home to the Théâtre National de l’Opéra Comique.
In 1706, 19 years had passed since the death of the former director of the Opéra, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and the institution found itself in a fragile state. At Versailles, pleasure had long since been ousted by piety. Under the influence of Madame de Maintenon and Bossuet, the monarch was reconciled to Rome before dragging France into the long War of the Spanish Succession. New operas were very rarely staged at court, and they were not necessarily performed in the presence of the king. The fragile financial health of the realm’s foremost public theatre led the Opéra’s privilege-holders to put management in the hands of contract employees: a director and a number of sponsors. The repertory was opened up to Lully’s successors and embraced new lyrical formulas. The opéra-ballet, an entertaining genre represented by the works of Colasse and Campra, had for ten years enjoyed a roaring success.
Louis XIV did not attend the first performance of Alcyone, of which the prologue, as was de rigueur in this official genre, nevertheless extolled his might. Following the custom of the previous fifty years, the king is represented in the guise of Apollo, who triumphs over Pan by singing a hymn to peace: “Amiable Peace, […] / Happy, happy the victor who takes up arms / Only to restore you to the world.” Apollo then orders “a fine pageant” to mark his victory and instructs the muses to repeat the story of the Halcyons, the divinities who watch over the calm of the oceans, which was so vital to the prosperity of the French navy!
The following five acts tell in five tableaux the story of the Halcyons, or rather that of their parents, as taken from Book XI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the source of numerous operatic subjects of the period. It revolves around Ceyx, King of Trachis in Thessaly and the son of Phosphorus, the god of light, and Alcyone, the daughter of Aeolus, the god of the winds. Like Alceste, Armide, Dido and many others, the heroine gives her name to the opera, guiding the spectators through a labyrinth of passions which are less political and more intimate in nature than masculine passions. The daughter of a god who rules the elements, she anchors the work in the marine environment, a judicious choice for a show which, in the Baroque period, owed its spectacular qualities (scenic carpentry, stage machinery, set-change mechanisms) to naval engineers and technicians.
The heterogeneous audiences at the Opéra were less reticent than royalty when it came to being won over, from the very first evening, by Jean Bérain’s sets and the remarkable performance conducted by the composer himself. The finest singers and dancers of the company graced the stage, and in the orchestra pit, brightly lit like the rest of the theatre, sat the finest orchestra in Europe. It brought together some forty musicians, most of whom were reputed soloists and even composers in their own right. Inventive, colourful and varied, Marais’s score was all the enthusiastically received in that it included an already popular character from opera, Peleus, the friend and unhappy rival of Ceyx, and at least one folk tune transformed into the sailors’ chorus in Act III. When Alcyone was performed, box- office takings were almost 60% higher than on other evenings.
The revivals of Alcyone at the Opéra bear witness to its enduring popularity, despite the fact that the nature of musical spectacles at that time was undergoing a shift toward dance, variety and entertainment. The 1719, 1730, 1741, 1756, 1757 and 1771 revivals of the work suffered changes and cuts, the brunt of which were borne by the prologue, but the sea storm and, above all, the tempest, remained a must. The storm was included in a revival of Lully’s Alceste in 1707, quoted by Campra in Les Fêtes vénitiennes in 1710… Proof of its huge popularity were the parodies accompanying a number of revivals: Fuzelier wrote L’Ami à la mode ou parodie d’Alcyone in 1719 for the actors and marionnettes of the Foire Saint-Germain, and in 1741 Romagnesi composed a parodic Alcyone for the Théâtre-Italien.
If the storm scene enjoyed particular success, it was because of its ability to depict unbridled nature by “concealing art with art”, something for which Jean-Philippe Rameau also strove – in other words, by using all the resources of serious music to translate the chaos of the elements. With his descriptive symphony, Marais promoted a new vision of his art: henceforth, not only would music be able to portray everything, but it would pull no punches to achieve that goal, incorporating new instruments as well as new ways of playing them. The doors opened to musicians by Marais would never again be closed.
It is this creative freedom and this art of enchantment that is brought to life by Jordi Savall as director of the Concert des Nations, playing on period instruments, and Louise Moaty, assisted by Raphaëlle Boitel, in the first Paris stage production of Alcyone since 1771.
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