116. Médée (Charpentier)

Tragédie lyrique in a prologue and 5 acts
Composer : Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Libretto : Thomas Corneille
First performed : Académie royale de musique, Paris, 4 December 1693


Lully was dead – and with him his monopoly over opera.

For more than a decade, only he had been able to compose opera in France. He defined the tragédie lyrique, with all its rigid conventions  – but some healthy free market competition would have been a great thing for French opera.

The Italian dominated French opera even from the grave, like some kind of musical zombie, sucking life and inspiration from all composers who approached. Composing in Lully’s style was de rigueur (or, indeed, de rigor mortis).

Take Médée. (Please do, far away.) If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was by Lully. There’s the grovelling prologue honouring Louis XIV; the stereotypical plot of a vengeful enchantress; and the dully conversational score  – recit, recit, and more recit, with little in the way of aria, ensemble, vocal display, or tune. “Quels ennuis vous me coûterez,” Médée remarks.

Lully’s contemporaries, however, found Médée worryingly novel. His music was apparently too difficult, too advanced.

He combined, Vincent Giroud argued, the Lullian-style recitative with a richer harmonic language – too rich for the 17th century French.

The opera was only performed ten times between 4 December 1793 and 15 March 1694. (A later revival at Lille was interrupted by fire.) Louis XIV attended it once; he considered Charpentier a talented man, and thought there were beautiful things in it. The Dauphin went twice, and Monsieur, the king’s brother, four times.

Sébastien de Brossard, writing in 1724, blamed a Lullist cabal on the failure of the opera; Charpentier was too “Italian”. Ironic, given Giovanni Battista Lulli was a Florentine; Charpentier had merely studied with one Carissimi in Rome.

They dubbed him the “compositeur barbare”, and Cerf de la Viéville declared Médée was hard, dry, and stuffy to excess. We won’t disagree; it’s Lully without melodic inspiration. Compared to Lully, it seems dry and archaic. (Caveat auditor.)

The opera found more favour with later critics. Brossard declared it the most learned and refined of French operas performed by 1724, and wondered whether Charpentier should be classed among the Theoreticians (masters of the art of music) rather than in the rank of simple opera composers.  Médée, he thought, is the opera from which one can learn the most things essential to good composition.

It’s fair to say, too, that modern critics are also unanimous in praising the thing. H. Wiley Hitchcock calls it superb, equalling in every way Lully’s best operas; Giroud and Piotr Kaminski are equally effusive.

The only commercial recordings are conducted by William Christie, slowly and lifelessly as is his wont with tragédie lyrique. (His Hippolyte et Aricie, though, is excellent.)

The average operagoer is better off hunting down Cherubini’s 1797 opera.


FURTHER READING

  • H. Wiley Hitchcock, preface to Christie’s 1994 recording, Harmonia Mundi
  • Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
  • Opéras de Charpentier, Muse Baroque

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