In Le Maître a danser, a dance manual which was published in Paris in 1725, Pierre Rameau wrote of the saltatory prowess of the French King, Louis XIV (1643-1715) and of his predilection for the Courante:
‘Verily he danced this better than anyone else at Court, and endowed her an infinite grace. But what provides even more proof for the kinship and penchant that His Majesty has for dance is the fact that this great Conqueror, despite the hard work which has always kept him occupied, for more than twenty to twenty-two years has never deprived Monsieur de Beauchamps of the honour of guiding him for those few hours in this noble exercise.’
Historically, there had always been dancing at the French Court and with the development of the ballet de cour pleasure and politics combined, in allegorical spectacles marking important court events. An avid and skilled dancer, Louis did not sit on the side-lines. Instead, guided by his mentor First Minister Cardinal Mazarin, the young King showcased his talent in performances which publicly confirmed his superiority as a dancer, in roles carefully selected to emphasise his royal, divine status. Louis was just twelve years old when he first performed in a ballet, Le ballet de Cassandre, and still a teenager when, in 1653, he took what would become his most significant symbolic role, appearing as Apollo in ‘Le soleil levant’, in the Ballet Royal de la Nuit. The fourteen-year-old Sun King was thus master of the dance and of his subjects.
Isaac de Benserade wrote the libretto for the Ballet Royal de la Nuit, and the musicwas composed by, among others, Jean de Cambefort, Jean-Baptiste Boësset and Michel Lambert. The man who would, a decade later, become Lambert’s son-in-law was a dancer in the entrées alongside the young King. By the end of the year, that talented dancer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, would have a new position, as Compositeur de la musique instrumentale du roi. In 1656 he was given his own orchestra, the Petits Violons, and in May 1661 he became Surintendant de la Musique de la Cambre. In the years up to 1570, when the King ceased performing, Lully would provide the music for some of the French court’s most important ballets de cour, including the Ballet royal d’Alcidiane (1658), the Ballet royal de l’impatience (1661), the Ballet royal de la Naissance de Vénus (1665) and the Ballet royal de Flore (1669).
Today, it is rare to see or hear these ballets de cour performed in their entirety, though compilations sometimes bring together selections from the ballets composed by Lully for the Sun King, and individual numbers find their way into collections of seventeenth-century airs de cour. Indeed, none of Lully’s musical autographs has survived; the earliest extant manuscript scores of the ballets de cour date from the 1690s (after Lully’s death in 1687), many of them copied by the royal music librarian, Andre Damcan Philidor, who had himself played in some of Lully’s productions. So, editorial conundrums must be resolved by drawing upon such copies, which often exhibit many variants, extant libretti and a knowledge of seventeenth-century conventions.
This recording, then, of the 1665 Ballet royal de la Naissance de Vénus by Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques – the ensemble’s first essay in the ballet de cours genre following their esteemed recordings and performances of several of Lully’s later tragédies lyriques – is to be greatly welcomed.
In the 1650s, the court ballets emphasised spectacle over plot, the loosely related entrées being separated by sung recitatives and designed to reflect aristocratic concerns and interests; symbols of pleasure, drawn from Classical imagery, offered plentiful opportunity for theatrical self-representation. In the following decade, the ballets increasingly became coded messages of sovereignty, serving as absolutist propaganda, with the King’s roles – Jupiter, Pluto, and Apollo – duly emphasising his heroism and glory. The vocal – and thus textual – element of the ballets also expanded, and the formality of their structure was tightened.
First performed on 26th January 1665 at the Palais Royal, La Naissance de Vénus featured Louis in the role of Alexander, paying deferent respect to the goddess of love, the King’s regal superiority thus confirmed through his chivalry. The ballet was performed by 96 individuals creating 106 roles, complemented by 20 musicians and 14 singers. Benserade’s libretto is divided into two parts, each comprising six entrées. The first part recounts Venus’s birth, opening with a chorus of Tritons who announce the goddess’s emergence from the sea on a mother-of-pearl throne. She is spirited away to the heavens by Phosphorus and the Horae and subsequently, sea gods and goddesses, the Zephyrs, ships’ captains and merchants, Springtime, Play and Laughter, troupes of shepherds and shepherdesses all gather to celebrate Venus’s birth and swear allegiance to her laws. The second part depicts the potent effects of the goddess’s power, as Jupiter, Apollo and Bacchus fall prey to her influence, and the world’s rulers and heroes – Hercules, Jason, Achilles and Alexander – and philosophers and poets – Theocritus, Anacreon, Ovid, Dante and Petrarch – make floral sacrifices at her temple in Paphos. Orpheus’s plea to Venus to help him restore his beloved Euridice from the Underworld confirms the incomparable extent of her power.
Both the dancing cast and the orchestra of the ballets de cour would have been all-male, but women frequently participated as singers, though if the dance was deemed participatory, the singing was not and the airs were sung by female professionals at court such as Hilaire Dupuy, Anne de la Barre, and the Italian opera star Anna Bergerotti. Moreover, La Naissance de Vénus was composed in honour of a woman: the King’s sister-in-law and first wife of Philippe d’Orléans, Henriette d’Angleterre, known as ‘Madame’. In the first recitative, ‘Madame’ enters, surrounded by her twelve Nereids, and her superlative beauty is celebrated. Rousset and his players suggest that the protagonists’ pulse rates are rising, sent soaring by excitement and joy. The thirteen-strong Choeur de chambre de Namur deliver the Tritons’ celebrations at the sight of the miraculous marine nativity with panache, and their outbursts punctuate the interweaving solo exchanges, warm support and scene-setting being stylishly provided by strings, oboes and an agile continuo section. The frequent metrical and textural transitions are flexible and natural. The listener may be denied the spectacle that Louis’s court enjoyed but it’s impossible to be impervious to the music’s jouissance.
We have to wait until the second part for further vocal contributions. The first is the dialogue of the Three Graces, in which sopranos Deborah Cachet and Bénédicte Tauran are joined by mezzo-soprano Ambroisine Bré to reprise the praise of Venus’s beauty, spirit and honour which was originally sung by Madamoiselles Hilaire, de la Barre and Saint-Christophe. The text may be commonplace but the simple, airy counterpoint – thought to have been composed by Michel Lambert – is exquisite. This is a deliciously sweet trio, the rhythms flexible, the decorations elegant, as the three voices overlap and intertwine, working themselves into a state of ecstatic adoration. The continuo provides imaginative, sensitive support. Such joy is countered by moments of beautiful musical pathos, Ariadne’s moving ‘Plainte’, ‘Rochers, vous êtes sourds’, sung with melancholy contemplation by Cachet, and Orpheus’s plea to Pluto to release Euridice, made alternately pressing and wistful by the high tenor Cyril Auvity.
If the vocal elements of the ballet are not copious, then they are rich and rewarding, and they are complemented by instrumental playing that is characteristically both stylish and robust. The Overture bursts majestically into life – one can envisage those seventeenth-century aristocrats proudly straightening their backs in readiness for the pleasures of self-praise to come – and Rousset sharply defines the contrasts of the musical prologue, which is heroic, elevated and sprightly by turn. The rhythms are strongly marked, the pulse propelling, the lines lithe, the textures clear: this is elegant musical galanterie, and it is sustained throughout the recording. Characters and settings are persuasively conjured. I particularly liked the proud entrance of Castor and Pollux and their subsequent gleeful bourrée; and, the freshly scented arrival of Flora and Pales with their lively pastoral entourage whose air and minuet close the first part with such uplifting grace and vigour.
In the second part, the syncopations of the minuet for Europe and her six nymphs tug and sway sensuously but are interrupted by Apollo’s self-important rhythmic stamp, though the latter is itself cut off by Cupid’s mischievous spriteliness. The recorders provide a lovely sweetness, complementing the violins’ charm, in the Sarabande for Fauns and Indians; again, there’s a beautiful fluidity to the pulse and the ornamentations are expressive. If the loss of Euridice brings a sombre weight to the final number, ‘Huit ombres enlèvent Eurydice’, then there remains a noble confidence at the close.
And, there is yet more. Since the ballet does not quite fill the disc, the singers are permitted to entertain us further. The Ballet des amours déguiséz of 1664 also has a propagandist element, alluding as it does to the ‘disguised love’ of Louis XIV for his mistress, Louise de la Valliere, while presenting the subordination of that love to regal duty as emblematic of Louis’s nobility. In one entrée the King danced the role of Renaud, the warrior persuaded by his knights to abandon the famous sorceress, Armide, and her magic island, royal honour triumphing over human passion, and it is Armida’s lamenting recitative, ‘Ah! Rinaldo, e dove sei?’, that we hear. Ambroisine Bré wrings every ounce of fury, despair and resignation from Lully’s music, which has a quasi-madrigalian intensity. There is more desolation in the ‘Plainte italienne’ from Psyché (1656), the gentleness of the two recorders making more piquant the raw outpouring of lovesick suffering.
Louis XIV may have used art to promote his own sovereignty but, ironically, his pre-eminence was reliant upon those who fabricated the artistic spectacles designed to uphold his supremacy. It seems somewhat fitting then that it is a masquerade that forms the final vocal item on this wonderful recording of Lully’s ‘fetes galantes et magnifiques’: that is, the carnivalesque folly and fun of the schoolmaster Barbacola’s frolicking impersonation, ‘Son dottor per occasion’, from Lully’s pasticcio-style Le Carnaval of 1675 – a ribald overturning of order and hierarchy.
Jean-Baptiste Lully: Ballet royal de la naissance de Vénus (Ballet à 12 entrées) LWV 27; Ballet royal des Amours déguisés, LWV 21 – Air d’Armide, ‘Ah! Rinaldo, è dove sei?’; Psyché LWV 45 – ‘Plainte italienne’; Le Carnaval LWV 52 – Air de Barbacola, ‘Son dottor per occasion’; Le Bourgeois gentilhomme LWV 43 – Chaconne d’Arlequin
Deborah Cachet (soprano), Bénédicte Tauran (soprano), Ambroisine Bré (mezzo-soprano), Cyril Auvity (high tenor), Samuel Namotte (tenor), Guillaume Andrieux (baritone), Philippe Estèphe (baritone), Les Talens Lyriques (Christophe Rousset, director), Chœur de Chambre de Namur
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