Just as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, true love sometimes ends with the ultimate sacrifice. The legendary lovers Hippolytus & Aricia, Hero & Leander, and Pyramus & Thisbe indulged forbidden desires, arranged secret trysts, faced natural disasters, suffered tragic death, and even – with intercession from the Gods – found redemption and reunification. The vocal music on this evening’s program, thrillingly set by Clérambault and Rameau, expresses sentiments ranging from ardent desire and exaltation to lamenting and loss.
Our program begins with the trio sonata L’Imortelle by Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747), which resonates with love’s emotional ups and downs. Its searching, G minor opening (the ultimate key of laments) gives way to faster sections that crackle with energy and rhythmic drive, while a halting, conversational minuet gradually builds confidence to erupt into cascades of scales to end the piece. Among the first Frenchmen to experiment with writing Italianate sonatas, and a violin prodigy in the retinue of Louis XIV, Rebel was one of the most innovative composers of his day.
With a libretto by l’Abbé Pellegrin based on Racine’s Phèdre, Rameau’s music for Hippolyte et Aricie was so dazzling and (in some cases) disorienting that responses ranged from excitement to bewilderment and disgust. One critic described Rameau’s early operas as “a perpetual witchery,” adding, “I am racked, flayed, and dislocated by this devilish sonata.” While the focus of the opera is really on Phèdre (whose forbidden love for her stepson Hippolytus sets off a chain reaction of terrible events) and Theseus (Hippolytus’s father whose rash decisions and mistrust leave him with neither wife nor son), Pellegrin’s libretto ultimately allows the forbidden love of Hippolytus for Aricia (daughter of the sworn enemy of Theseus) to be fulfilled. In fact, Hippolytus survives banishment from the kingdom AND a sea monster attack(!) to be reunited with his beloved thanks to a deus ex machina (courtesy of the goddess Diana).
But as the opera begins, Aricia is about to swear an oath of chastity (as decreed by Theseus) at the Temple of Diana. As the intimate, anguished air, “Temple sacré,” makes clear, Diana is really a proxy for Hippolytus: Aricia truly wishes she could offer her love and faith to the son of her people’s sworn enemy. Then, Hippolytus suddenly appears on the scene and lets slip that he has feelings for Aricia, too. United in their ill-fated love, they appeal to Diana for protection with the simple duo, “Tu regnes sur nos coeurs.”
The extraordinary, moody Preludio of Jean-Baptiste Senaillé’s Violin Sonata Op. 1, No. 6 echoes these fraught yet passionate sentiments with churning variations over a ground bass. A Frenchborn violin virtuoso whose music clearly bears the stamp of his Italian training, Senaillé (1687-1730) is almost unknown of today. A 1738 tribute in the Mercure de France commented on his skillful marriage of attractive French melody with Italian brilliance, adding, “The progress that the violin has since made in France is due to him, for he incorporated quite technically difficult things into his music.” Following the opening Preludio, a virtuosic Allemanda and a Gavotta are infused with driving Italian rhythms and harmonic sequences; the tender, central Adagio represents a true marriage of the French and Italian styles.
Like Senaillé and Rebel, Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676-1749) likewise found himself caught up in the wave of italianisme that swept across Paris at the turn of the century. While Clérambault also experimented with sonatas inspired by the Roman master Corelli, it was cantatas that made his reputation. Clérambault’s twentyfive extant cantatas are considered among the very best for their colorful instrumentation and sensitive, inventive melodies. A successful fusion of French stylistic grace with Italian forms, French cantatas are quasi-dramatic pieces of vocal chamber music comprising recitatives and airs. Many cantatas are based on themes from mythology that lend themselves to allegory; the final air usually relates to the moral of the story.
The last air of Clérambault’s Leandre et Héro is a plea to Love to tear off his blindfold, for the harshest rigors always seem to fall on the fondest of lovers. Separated by the Hellespont, Leander swims across the strait each night to see his love, Hero. The sweet, soft sounds of violins and recorder depict the calm waters until Boreas (God of the Wind) unleashes a horrible storm. Hero looks on in horror as a tempest (depicted with swirling violins) drowns her beloved. Not wanting to live without him she dives into the water and is swallowed up by the waves. Neptune, God of the Seas, recognizes their eternal bond and takes pity on the lovers by receiving them into the ranks of the immortals.
With a story over 2000 years old, the forbidden lovers Pyramus & Thisbe are the true predecessors of that famous pair, Romeo and Juliet. Forbidden by their rival families to see one another, the young couple plans a tryst at nightfall to swear their love before the gods (grave, dotted rhythms in the violins portray the seriousness of their oath). All seems to be going according to plan until Thisbe confronts a roaring lion on the banks of the river. Thisbe flings off her scarf at the river’s edge to distract the www.millertheatre.com lion and runs off. Pyramus, finding the fabric, assumes that it’s all that remains of his beloved and sings an emotional Plainte accompanied by recorder and violins. Following a brief, halfhearted attempt at avenging Thisbe’s death (“Venez, Monstres affreux”), Pyramus is filled with regret (“ton trepas est mon crime”). Not wishing to be parted, he commits suicide. Later, Thisbe finds him, realizes what has happened, and joins him in fateful death.
We close our program with selected scenes from the final acts of Rameau’s ground-breaking Hippolyte et Aricie. The tender, yet searching prelude that introduces Act 4, Scene 1 depicts Hippolytus’s sense of isolation as he considers his fate in the air that follows. Banished from the Kingdom, rent from his love Aricia, and unable to tell his father the truth about Phaedra, Hippolytus returns to the same question again and again, “Must it be that I can lose everything that I love in one day?!” In the next recitative, Hippolytus convinces Aricia to follow him; they plan an appeal once again to the goddess Diana in the lovely duet that closes Act 4, Scene 2.
Act 5, Scene 1 opens with the sounds of flowing streams and rustling leaves: having fainted, Aricia is awoken by sweet sounds (“Quel doux concerts!”) and a bright sunny day. Yet she remains inconsolable and insists that her eyes open only to shed tears. But Diana, having taken pity on the lovers, saw fit to rescue Hippolytus and reunite the pair. Hippolytus, Aricia, Diana, and her nymphs all celebrate in the closing chaconne.
- Notes by Debra Nagy