Homer’s Odyssey endures as one of the best-loved adventure tales of our time. The famous epic follows its hero Ulysses on a ten-year adventure as he returns home to Ithaca in the wake of the Trojan War. Along the way, he and his crew encounter lethargic Lotus Eaters and the monstrous Cyclops, Polyphemus. Ulysses must also resist the not-so friendly feminine wiles of the witch Circe, the deadly Sirens, and the nymph Calypso, who keeps him and his men captive for seven years. All the while, the goddess Minerva (also known as Pallas) serves as Ulysses’ guide and protector, helping him to avert disaster and overcome the many obstacles that separate Ulysses from his long-faithful wife, Penelope. The Odyssey’s central theme (and the source of its universal appeal) is the enduring strength of love, hope, and fidelity, and their ability to withstand tests of time and tribulation.
Scholars believe that Homer’s epic was a song sung to a rapt audience before it was ever written down, so it is fitting that we return his story to music by creating a program featuring French baroque retellings.
Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747) studied both composition and violin with Lully, and steadily climbed the professional ladder at Versailles: by the turn of the eighteenth century he was performing in the opera orchestra, becoming its conductor (batteur de mesure) by 1705. In 1718, he assumed the post of chamber composer to the King.
Despite its beautiful music and attractive subject, Rebel’s Ulysse suffered the same fate as virtually every other opera written between the time of Lully and Rameau. That is, it saw only a few performances and was never revived (though excerpts from Ulysse did get recycled into a later operatic pastiche). The libretto for Ulysse loosely adapts Homer’s text, creating a tangled love triangle between Circe, Ulysses, and Penelope. We present two airs from the Act 1: Souffriray-je (in which Penelope pleads with her long-absent husband to return) and the lilting Beaux lieux, where Penelope explains that beautiful gardens and other pleasant distractions will fail to distract her from her longing. By the end, however—with the help of the goddess Minerva—Penelope is happily reunited with Ulysses in Ithaca (which we witness with two airs from Act 5 of Ulysse: C’est vous, mon cher Ulysse, and Que c’est un plaisir extreme). We’re happy to present these excerpts from Ulysse for the first time, which we’ve edited from the surviving short score.
Rebel’s earliest works are his violin sonatas and trios, which date from the last decade of the seventeenth century. Many of his sonatas bear evocative titles, such as the trio L’Immortelle (the Immortal one) and La Fidelle (Faithful one), which in the context of this program, is meant to evoke the enduring hope and faith of Penelope. La Fidelle’s searching, improvisatory opening over a bass pedal note sets the stage for a series of contrasting sections that range from a brilliant, fast-paced fugue, to a simple elegant air that devolves into heart-wrenching suspensions, to a regal lentement consisting entirely of double-stops on the violin, and finally a virtuosic fantasy that recalls the musical sighs and chromaticism of the sonata’s opening.
Though François Chauvon’s Cinquième Suite contains no direct reference to the Homerian tale, we might imagine the different movements—from the dreamy Sicilienne (La Rêveuse) to the final, hypnotic Chaconne en rondeau as evocative of Odysseus’s seven years on the island of Ogygia under the spell of the goddess Calypso. The pervasive use of rondeau form in this suite enhances its bewitching quality, while traces of the pastoral (heard in the Sicilienne, the pesante Gavotte, and even in the lilting rhythms of the Chaconne) echo Homer’s own description of this entrancing island: “Thickets of alder, black poplar, and cypress, with horned owls, falcons, and garrulous sea-crows roosting in their branches, sheltered Calypso’s great cavern. A grapevine twisted across the entrance. Parsley and irises grew thick in an adjoining meadow, which was fed by four clear streams.” A student of François Couperin, Chauvon (c.1690-1740) had a rich imagination and a distinctive, witty voice that shines through each of his few, extant works.
Thomas-Louis Bourgeois (1676-1750) is hardly a household name, but he made a major contribution to the genre of the French cantata. At the time of Les Sirènes’ publication, Bourgeois could regularly be heard singing countertenor at Paris’s Opéra. Following six years as surintendant de musique in the service of the Duke of Bourbon, he appears to have struggled to hold onto professional appointments in various provincial cities (Lyons, Poitiers, Dijon), ending his career in obscurity and poverty. Les Sirènes (1708) dates from the beginnings of his success as a composer. The music is concise and strong, effectively conveying the tantalizing allure of the sirens (L’Amour par nos voix vous appelle) and the dangerous peril should Ulysses and his crew fall prey to them.
In the course of the Odyssey, Ulysses and his men also encounter the dreaded Cyclops, Polyphemus. (Alas, Rameau’s harpsichord solo–with its repeated “hammering” figures probably refers to a different group of Cyclops who forged lightening bolts for Zeus). Ulysses escapes Polyphemus’ clutches by blinding him with a wooden stake, though he makes the terrible mistake of boastfully revealing his identity. As a result, Ulysses and his crew are forced to confront the wrath of Neptune (Polyphemus’s father), God of the Seas.
In vain, Ulysses attempts to conceal his fleet of ships from Neptune, which is where Le Sommeil d’Ulisse by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) picks up the story. Neptune whips up a terrifyingly dangerous storm, complete with thunder and lightening in the violin’s swirling tempête. Minerva sweeps in to protect Ulysses, offering him refuge and respite by way of a deep, magical sleep (this sommeil is evoked with lilting dotted rhythms, slow-moving harmonies, and the unreal, fused sound of muted violin and recorder).
La Guerre rose to prominence as a child prodigy, when, at the age of five, she was already performing on the harpsichord and singing at the court of Louis XIV. She was the first woman to compose an opera in France, and one of the very few to publish her own compelling, creative compositions. Le Sommeil d’Ulisse is included in her final collection of Cantates françoises (1715), published fifteen years before her death.
The cantata became enormously popular in early eighteenth-century France. Borrowing both form and function from opera, French cantatas include Italianate da capo arias, extravagant and dramatic instrumental interludes adapted from the stage (such as the tempest scene in La Guerre’s Sommeil d’Ulisse), and metrically-flexible French recitatives. As in most Tragédie Lyrique (the French operatic form pioneered by Jean-Baptiste Lully), allusions honoring King Louis XIV frequently appear in the cantata repertory (in tonight’s program, the story of the benevolent King Alcinous is a clear reference), and a Deus ex machina frequently sweeps in at the end to save the day (cue: Minerva/Pallas). Sometimes, the final aria in a cantata may offer a moral to the audience. In the case of Les Sirènes, the temptation of Beauty cannot and will be denied – resistance to Love is futile!