Le Concert Royal de la Nuit was a statement so extravagant that it stunned the unruly Court into submission. As an artistic manifesto, it set out visions of what music, theatre, visual arts and dance might achieve. From Le Concert Royal de la Nuit, we can trace the origins of the arts as we know them today, not only in France, but in European culture as whole, with implications so wide that they are still felt today. SÈbastien DaucÈ and Ensemble Correspondances made an acclaimed recording a few years back, and have been performing it in semi-staged productions, with dancers. No wonder St John’s Smith Square was almost sold out!
The original Concert Royal de la Nuit ran over 13 hours,from dusk to dawn, though there were breaks for feasting and rest. For practical purposes, this version comes in four Veilles (Watches) and 67 individual parts, ending with a Grand Ballet, running around 2 1/2 hours. But what variety ! There are pieces for different groupings from soloist with orchestra to full ensemble, scenes of high drama and moments of quiet contemplation, marking the transition from night to day. At the beginning, the beating of a single drum, a reminder that the pulse of music is rhythm, and that life itself marches to a rhythm that is greater than any individual. Despite the glories that are to come, pastoralism – and war – are never far away. As King, Louis XIV represented idealized virtues of manliness and refinement, strength and benevolence. The dances at court were structured displays, and dance itself a form of physical fitness and mental discipline. This idea of orderly logic would flow through to design, philosophy, and much more.
But Nature remains present. Like the gardens which Louis XIV would layout at Versailles, nature is contained in defined formal patterns, but in the woods surrounding, nature runs free. A hibou calls (a small archaic pipe) marking the descent into night. “Languissante clartÈ”, the first RÈcit, in which The Night reveals herself, a showpiece for Lucile Richardot, who projected the long, flowing legato so it seemed to fill the hall like moonlight. Behind her, murmuring low strings, sussurating like creatures of the night.Richardot has amazing timbre and range, her voice so expressive that she can “act” with her voice, though here she uses hand gestures reminiscent of those used in drawings of the original performance, an inportant consideration given that Le concert royal was meant to unify visual and aural art. This was followed by pieces marking the passing of “Hours” (soprano and small groups) and vignettes depicting huntsmen, gypsies and peasants, all well characterized.
The shades of darkness descend in the second Veille, and Venus appears, risen fully formed from the sea. This is a pointed reference to Louis XIV, taking command at the age of 14, throwing off the authority of Cardinals and courtiers. Though the Three Graces sang the praises of Venus, the connections must have been obvious. Thus choruses of Italians and Spaniards (rivals of the French) praise “unvanquished France”, united behind the leadership of Louis “Le plus Grand des Monarques”, as Venus herself declared. If the Moon symbolizes purity, Hercules symbolizes manly heroism. The Third Veille is a panorama where countertenor, bass, and male and female voices interact with orchestral interludes, replete with dramatic sound effects (instruments suggesting wind and thunder). The contrast between countertenor and bass was particularly vivid, performed here with great brio, the orchestra equally animated. Greek Gods, witches and figures from Antiquity emerge but the real subject is clearly Louis the King. Venus and Juno have extended rÈcits which acknowledge opposition but posit that a strong, benevolent ruler can triumph. The “love” here means love for an absolute King. Also extremely effective, the trio of male voices in the Chorus of Brooks and Breezes, “Dormi, dormi, o Sonno, dormi”. The last Veille describes Orpheus’s entry into the Underworld. Hero as he is, he cannot defy the laws of Life and Death. Night symbolizes sleep, dreams and submission, to Fate, Time and Nature. Then Apollo appears, promising the retun of “mio figlio”, the sun and Spring.
This set the context for the Grand Ballet, where Louis XIV himself appeared, garbed in golden splendour as the Sun, his headress emanating rays of light.”Depuis que j’ouvre l’Orient” the rÈcit of Aurore – beautifully sung and phrased by tenor, “jamais si pompeuse et si fiere……Le Soleil qui me suit c’est le jeune LOUIS”. The Chorus, representing the Planets hail the king. Now the orchestra burst forth with full enegy, percussion announcing the triumphal procession of the King into centre stage. The rhythmic energy of these orchestral interludes suggests that Louis XIV was an accomplished athlete – nothing wimpy about that dancing. Hercules and Beauty (baritone and soprano) united to sing of “Altro gallico Alcide orso d’affecto”. Cosmic forces indeed! Glorious final chorus, “All’impero d’Amore hi non ceder‡, S’‡ lui cede il valore d’ogni deit‡”. The effect must have dazzled the Court of Louis XIV, blinding them into silence. Le Concert Royal de la Nuit marks the start of music, theatre, dance and opera as we know them now, but also marked a turning point in French history. Ensemble Correspondances have been performing Le Concert Royal de la Nuit in staged performance, complete with dancers, in recent years (premiering in Caen), so let’s hope a miracle happens and we might get to see it in London. (William Christie and Les Arts Florissants have done a shortened unstaged version but with dancers). Until, then, give thanks and praise to Saint John’s Smith Square and above all to the London Festival, of Baroque Music who had the courage to sponsor this remarkable series. Support their commitment and dedication !
product_by=Le Concert Royal de la Nuit : Ensemble Correspondances, SÈbastien DaucÈ, London Baroque Festival, St John’s Smith Square, London. 19th May 2018 A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Louis XIV, Le Roi Soliel