Baroque pornography in Alexis Piron’s Vasta, Reine de Bordélie

One of the more enduring pleasures of having had a classical education – at least if you still remember it – is reading the richness of its literature: from Homer to Sophocles, or Suetonius to Virgil. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad are breathtaking in their scope, poetry and imagination. Their pages are as sweeping in their colour and drama as Tolstoy’s novels would become in the nineteenth century or the great masterpieces of mid-twentieth century cinema. There are, of course, translations; but even a dead language can breathe life, and give oxygen, to the stories they tell.

A generation or more of British education secretaries have denied many children the chance to read about the heroic adventures of Odysseus battling the man-eating Laestrygonians, or Scylla and Charybdis; or, in the Iliad the stories of Zeus, Achilles, Hector, or Helen of Troy. There is also the bawdiness of Aristophanes and Catullus; and the portraits of Suetonius’s Roman emperors who seemed to be guided as much by their eccentricities and sexual tastes as by their military and political achievements. These models would become the basis of – and become influential in – the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare; John Cleland and the Earl of Rochester. In nineteenth-century Paris, the era of the fin de siècle, Verlaine’s explicit homage to his love for both Rimbaud and Lucien Létinois would be the centrifugal centre of another kind of revolutionary writing that would eventually meet in the works of Oscar Wilde and D. H. Lawrence.

Alexis Piron’s Vasta, Reine de Bordélie, a tragedy in three acts, and composed in 1773 (the year Piron died), is another of these works which would find its influence from historical precedents. It certainly finds itself closer to Catullus than it does to Aristophanes, although one might muse that the figure of Aristophanes’s Xanthippe casts her shadow over Vasta. Piron is perhaps better known for his epigrams. Reine de Bordélie runs to just ten pages – in this translation of it – and has three acts with three scenes. It is extremely compact, an anti-opera in all but name – an almost epigrammatic operatic -lyric tragedy in fact. But the libretto owes so much to the poetry of Catullus and the unrestrained Libertinism which – soon to be curtailed by the French Revolution – you would have come across in the Marquis de Sade, Rabelais and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

Catullus’s poems have never been much fun to read in someone else’s translation. For centuries they have been heavily expurgated – or Bowdlerized if one wants to give it a culprit – their words rendered in such a way their meaning is entirely altered. The great beauty of reading any language in its original form is that translating it yourself is an art of entire originality. Catullus simply attached a number to the poems he wrote which meant when you reached number sixteen or ninety-seven you never quite knew how it would differ from any of the previous, much less explicit ones. A number suggests almost nothing in its title; it’s like diving into forbidden fruit.  Reine de Bordélie is entirely like this. You don’t need a number here, just a name. Indeed, this little tragedy is explicit on quite an industrial scale and it is translated with remarkable fidelity to the original French. There is no censorship here. And one would find it very difficult to find a classical work based on an original libretto or play that has quite a cast of characters as explicit as this one: Conille, Couille-au-Cul, Vit-en-L’Air, Tetasse. Guillaume Durand – the baritone on this recording – described it as a “Rabelais-like work, a form of chic and raw pornography”.

For many people operas are about the music and you can always get away with that; language matters much less. You don’t go to Covent Garden, for example, to read the surtitles for Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. For others, language is everything. Reine de Bordélie is very much about the latter. All of its fun and genius is entirely in knowing what the language means. The whole idea of this tragedy is that it is supposed to shock and music alone won’t do that. T. S. Eliot, in the 1920s, would argue quite the opposite – that language was music and that you didn’t necessarily have to understand its meaning to appreciate it – his own poetry, especially. Eliot took his cue from Walter Pater who wrote that, “All art aspires to the condition of music”. And that is even true of the text of Alexis Piron’s little tragedy.

Vasta, Reine de Bordélie, does in fact meet Eliot’s dictum. This is a text that is largely in rhyming couplets; it is also one where lines are in proportion to each other. It is in essence an entirely eighteenth-century one – its style of composition based very much on a classical one. French may be a refined language but here it is also a very sharp one. Line endings are sung or spoken on a knife edge. And whilst the precision of it is extraordinary there is a freedom here where every nuance is an immaculately original creation. There is delicious tragedy in this work, served up on a plate of comedy, rather like in Titus Andronicus.

The plot of Vasta, Reine de Bordélie isn’t especially complicated – and I shall try to describe it as cleanly as possible, although it would be more fun to do it the other way! Vasta, the insatiable queen of Brothelia, over which she imposes her merciless rule, shares a prince with her daughter but boredom with him makes his position appear increasingly vulnerable. The arrival of a new foreign prince, famed beyond the kingdom for his exceptional sexual prowess, causes strife and dissent within Brothelia. The new prince publicly castrates his rival and Vasta’s daughter, now darkened with despair, commits suicide. The merciless and cold-hearted Vasta takes her new prince as her consort. That is about it…

Pappas has, however, interspersed Piron’s tragedy with pieces by other composers. In Acts II and III, for example, we have extracts from George Benda’s d’Ariane à Naxos (1778), André Campra’s Tancrède (1702) in Act III and Rameau’s Ouverture de Platée (1745) which begins Act I as the prologue. Alongside these are anonymous vocal pieces and arrangements by Pappas himself.

There is, as far as I can tell, no other performance of this work in the catalogue. Fortunately, this one is superb. Iakovos Pappas, the director behind this production of Reine de Bordélie, has spoken of some of the restraints he had in making this recording, one of them being financial. This was fundamentally a collaboration of artists over the absence of external problems – in a sense it was motivated by very ‘French’ ideals that had much to do with artistic equivalence. This was a collaboration. It is probably not coincidental, for example, that the French baritone Guillaume Durand should have been part of the project. Pappas has also talked of the kind of singers he needed: singing actors, capable of radical expression but as Durand has also said Pappas’s concentration and focus on the text has often been “torture” for them.

What we do have, however, is an outstanding and expressive cast who deliver with considerable humour and skill libidinous, pornographic and licentious text in a thoroughly entertaining way. This is not a work with extensive parts for its singers – in the case of Durand’s Couille-au-Cul he is only required to do one monologue, but it is the longest of the entire tragedy, partly recalling in vivid detail the castration of the court prince. Elizabeth Fernandez’s Vasta holds the narrative together because this is her narrative – even if it is not particularly her tragedy. That is to be the fate of her suicidal daughter, sung by Delphine Guevar, and Nathanaël Tavernier’s Prince of the Court who can satisfy neither the Queen nor her daughter. It’s a mile away from the kind of baroque music that one would usually experience and yet there is, rather remarkably, something entirely baroque about this work. Behind the text there is a very subtle orchestration of a harpsicord, violin, viola, basso viola, cello. These instruments become their own voices within each of the verses. As the booklet rather funnily notes Iakovos Pappas – ‘il est partout’ – ‘he is everywhere’. And yes, it is very much his production in every sense. There is a full libretto in French, with an English translation. Drawings are by Thomas Carrère, which I found slightly reminiscent to some by Jean Cocteau.  

Reine de Bordélie often feels like a very evil fairy tale for adults – and that is partly where the fun of it rests. There is no morality here – no particular moral either. For many I suspect Pappas has unmasked something from the baroque that is a new discovery in music. But eroticism in this form has long existed in the darker parts of the repertory where music and pornography are inextricably linked. Does Reine de Bordélie have any aesthetic value? Is it great baroque tragedy? The second question is easier to answer because Reine de Bordélie is probably not great tragedy but it is a charming discovery. There is aesthetic value from the performance – it is beautifully presented, and it has a haunting and magical quality. If you don’t understand French much of this work’s brilliance is going to be lost on you anyway; if you do, then you’ll either be totally offended by it or have a great deal of fun.

Marc Bridle

Alexis Piron (1689-1773): Vasta, Reine de Bordélie (1773)

Ensemble Almazis/Iakovos Pappas (harpsicord and music director)
Actors/Singers: Elizabeth Fernandez (vocals – Vasta), Delphine Guevar (soprano – Conille), Nathanaël Tavernier (bass – Vit-Molet), Christophe Crapez (tenor – Fout-Six-Coups), Guillaume Durand (baritone – Couille-au-Cul), Jean-Christophe Born (vocals – Vit-en-L’Air), Cecil Gallois  (countertenor – Frappart & Tetasse), Chrisophe Crapez (tenor – Un Soldat), Eva Gruber (contralto – Le Grand-Prêtre).
Instrumentalists: Céline Martel & Diana Lee (violin), Céline Cavagnac – (viola), Pierre Charles (violincello), Yuka Saito (bass viola)

rec. December 2017, Auditorium de la Bibliothèque National de France
Maguelone MAG 358.409 [73:00]