Versailles, Portrait of a Royal Domain: The King’s Effervescent Invitation

 Nélida Nassar 06.20.2019

The chamber opera evening at the Boston Early Music Festival presented a superb sampling of the entertainment Louis XIV offered his courtiers and privileged visitors in the newly decorated Grand Apartments of his palace. A repeat from a previous biannual festival, Versailles, Portrait of a royal domain is a clever mélange of three short operatic vignettes by three different composers: Les Plaisirs de Versailles by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Atys by Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Les Fontaines de Versailles by Michel-Richard de Lalande. 

Once the court moved from Paris to Versailles in 1682, Louis sought a way to keep his courtiers sufficiently amused during the winter season. This led to the creation of the Soirées d’Appartements, entertainments which took place three times a week. Music, dancing, a variety of games, and a lavish buffet were offered in a relatively informal setting in which guests, rather than being served at tables, were free to choose their own conversational companions, seating, food and games. 

The relationships of the three composers to each other, to Louis XIV, and to the festivities at Versailles are intriguing. Undoubtedly a subtle competition existed between the three men. Charpentier (1643-1704) wanted to demonstrate to the king his abilities in the area of French secular music as well as in the Latin sacred music for which he was best known. He had connections to the powerful Guise family as well as to the Dauphin (son of Louis XIV). As the king’s official composer, Lully (1632-1687) retained a monopoly on all French opera performances. His Atys (1676) was known as ‘l’opéra du Roy’: excerpts from it were frequently performed at Louis’ salons and it was revived many times in the king’s lifetime. De Lalande (1657-1726) was supported by the king’s former mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, and he taught harpsichord to the daughters whom she had with the king.

The concert opened with Charpentier’s Les Plaisirs de Versailles a divertissement featuring an argument between the rival Music (soprano Teresa Wakim) and Conversation (mezzo soprano Marjorie Maltais), the latter an ignorant chatterbox who continually interrupts the self-important Music to offer “inopportune praise” (a regular enough occurrence at Versailles, one can well imagine). When the two argue, the Greek God of Festivities Comus (tenor Jesse Blumberg) is prevailed upon to arbitrate. He tries chocolate and wine, and even enlists the help of that other favorite Versailles pursuit, Gaming (tenor Jason McSoots). The two rivals are eventually reconciled only through their shared admiration and praise for the ‘Grand Roi,’ much to the relief of the Chorus of Pleasures, and together do their best to “relax” the great King after his “war work.” Music literally and aesthetically has the last word as it rejoices in its power over men and is cherished by the “most famous of all conquerors.” Gilbert Blin’s hypothesis that Donneau de Visé wrote the libretto for Les Plaisirs de Versailles is plausible, as Charpentier composed incidental music for many of Donneau de Visé’s plays.

The singers inhabit their roles convincingly, and everyone contributes to making the music work as drama – lightweight though it is most of the time. Aaron Sheehan one of the Pleasures – clearly the Boston Early Music Festival’s favorite tenor at the moment – is excellent in the Les Plaisirs de Versailles. He displays an effective blend of plaintive lyricism, ardent entreaty, and fierce indignation, varying it as the situation demands. Among the other singers, I especially enjoyed the warm, bright voice of Teresa Wakim, with its full timbre and high tessitura, as well as her splendid comic acting. Both physically and vocally imposing, Marjorie Maltais created a delightful chatter with her bold and rich voice. The instrumental playing, too, well catches the mood of the opera, especially the violins, which have some glorious moments of mellifluous sweetness.

Les Jardins de Versailles was followed by Act IV, scene 5, from Lully’s Atys. It depicts the river gods and the nymphs of the chateau’s fountains celebrating the upcoming marriage of the daughter of Sangar, the god of the river, to the son of Neptune. With his power as the high priest of Cybèle, Atys orders Sangaride’s father to cancel the wedding to King Celenus. The River of Sangar, however, approves Sangaride’s choice in the chorus “Nous approuvons votre choix” (We approve your choice) followed by “Que l’on chante” (Let us sing). Olivier Laquerre’s rich baritone voice delivers plenty of passion as the River Sangar. The three divinities – soprano Molly Netter, mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken, and baritone Zachary Wilder – perfectly convey the wistfulness of ‘L’Amour trouble tout le Monde” (Love troubles the whole world). The chorus and orchestra are first-class. A jubilant dance suite consisting of a gavotte, two minuets, and choral numbers concludes the act to the delight of the audience.

Next came, without a pause, the sleep scene from Act III of Atys. Appearing here again as King Louis XIV, the superb baroque dancer and choreographer Carlos Fittente was wheeled in to sleep and dream in his chair. Scenes of this type had been established in Venetian opera and were especially useful, because they could place a character in a vulnerable position for a variety of dramatic purposes. In this case, tenor Aaron Sheehan, playing Le Sommeil (Sleep) reveals secret thoughts, praising the repose that can be enjoyed in this altered state of consciousness. Here his subtle dynamics and phrasing, above the orchestra’s repeated bass pattern, is particularly effective. Although few Venetian traditions were appreciated by the French, Lully and his librettist Quinnault clearly welcomed the sleep scene. (At this point, incidentally, the oboists Gonzalo Ruiz and Kathryn Montoya switch to playing recorders).

The smaller roles are all well cast. Tenor Jason McStoots, with his high, limpid notes, embodies the god of dreams, Morpheus, while bass baritone John Taylor Ward’s sonorous Phobetor, the god of nightmares, offers just the right melodic contrast with Morpheus’, yielding in the end to the gentle silence of sleep, as tenor Zachary Wilder joins them in a trio for the final couplet of this enchanting scene. Thanks to Blin’s direction and staging, and to his superb singers and players, Lully’s music shimmers and gleams. The recitatives are sung with emotional power and convey the free rhythm dictated by the accent of the words. One cannot praise too much the accompaniment of the 11 BEMF musicians, conducted by concertmaster Robert Mealy, playing at times in continuo and at others in accompagnato (strumentato).

The last spectacle within a spectacle, Les Fontaines de Versailles, is by another of the great composers of the French Baroque. De Lalande.  is finally beginning to receive proper recognition, thanks to modern recordings, especially of his sumptuous grands motets. Very much a favored composer during the reign of Louis XIV, de Lalande.  progressively assumed – from the 1680s onwards – more and more important court positions and was called upon to provide sacred music for the Chapelle Royale at the Château de Versailles. The libretto by Antoine Morel states that the concert was “given to his Majesty in the grand apartments of his chateau at Versailles on the 5th of April, 1683.”  

De Lalande. ’s masque of Versailles statuary takes place in springtime in the palace gardens, where Louis’ beloved carvings came to life. There is no real story, only effusive adulation for Louis XIV himself. Radiance, goodness, happiness, and a Sun God turned into a salubrious water-jet God form the core of Les Fontaines de Versailles. De Lalande. ’s music and Morel’s libretto, it must be said, are inferior to those of Charpentier and, especially, of Lully. The surprise here was the wheeling in of King Louis himself, at first dozing in his wheelchair and then awakened, or rather resurrected, to become a dancing fury. 

Carlos Fittante could surely perform every dance known to the French monarchy, either solo or with partners. His fancy footwork is graceful and elegant, and in complete accord with the coloratura embellishments and fleet-footed ingenuity that set the tone of the opera.

As in the two preceding pieces, the group of singers performs brilliantly. The soloists, perfectly cast, personify a number of gods – Lutone, Flore, Apollon, Cérès,  Encelade, Bacchus, La Renommée, Comus, et Le Dieu du Canal  (i.e. the canal that runs through the gardens of Versailles supplying water to its ornamental fountains).

The staging at Jordan Hall was minimal for all three operatic excerpts. It consisted of a couple of outsize urns evoking the splendor of Versailles’ royal salon with pale draperies in Les Plaisirs de Versailles. They were transformed into golden urns, into the garden’s fountains, behind which the various characters and scenes unfolded in Les Fontaines de Versailles. As for the costumes, variations on the colors taupe and beige, they lacked the brightness that announce the Spring season.

The triptych of chamber operas reflects on Versailles’ grandeur in the 1680s and 1690s. The singing and dancing infused the stage with the spirit of the Golden Age; it was ever-present. While watching the spectacle, I kept wondering about what Louis XIV’s court was really like and whether this triptych can be called contemporary. Some of this has to do with drawing parallels with the self-styled Trump court and how an enlightened monarch supported the arts as an aid to ruling his kingdom, while President Donald Trump rules in part by actions such as cutting the funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

This excellent BEMF production is inspiring, as, indeed, are all its biannual Festivals. On each such occasion it unfailingly resurrects undeservedly neglected operas and, more generally, introduces us to fascinating works from the rich musical and artistic heritage of the 16th through the 18th century. I am already looking forward to the next Festival. 

Versailles: Portrait of a Royal Domain, will be in performances at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington today and tomorrow.

Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin, Stage Director
Robert Mealy, Concertmaster
Melinda Sullivan, Dance Director
Carlos Fittante, Choreographer
Anna Watkins, Costume Designer
Kelly Martin, Lighting Designer
Kathleen Fay, Executive Producer

Jesse Blumberg, baritone
Olivier Laquerre, bass baritone
Marjorie Maltais, mezzo soprano
Jason McStoots, tenor
Sophie Michaux, mezzo soprano
Molly Netter, soprano
Margot Rood, soprano
Aaron Sheehan, tenor
Teresa Wakim, soprano
John Taylor Ward, bass baritone
Virginia Warnken Kelsey, mezzo soprano
Zachary Wilder, tenor