Charpentier’s Histoires Sacrées, staged – London Baroque Festival

“Marc-Antoine Charpentier Histoires sacrées with Ensemble Correspondances, conducted by Sébastien Daucé, at St John’s Smith Square, part of the London Festival of the Baroque 2018. This striking staging, by Vincent Huguet, brought out its austere glory: every bit a treasure of the Grand Siècle, though this grandeur was dedicated not to Sun God but to God.

Religion as theatre : and why not ? Like the architecture and ornamentation in baroque churches, devotional art served faith. Although St John’s Smith Square was built in the less florid Northern Baroque style, Huguet’s production transformed it, so it glowed. It felt as if we had stepped into a painting by Caravaggio or Velázquez.

Charpentier’s Histoires sacrées have their roots both in sacred oratorio and in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages. Charpentier’s audiences were well versed in biblical and liturgical texts, so they could appreciate these “stories” told with sophistication. At the heart of this programme were three histoires – Judith ou Béthulie libérée H.391, Madeleine en larmes H.343 andCécile Vierge et Martyre H.397, framed by Ô Sacrement de Piété H.274, as prelude, Au parfum de tes onguents H.510) as interlude and Sous l’abri de ta miséricorde H.28 as postlude. This formal structure connects the three central characters, each of them a strong woman : Judith kills the Assyrian Holofernes who persecutes the Hebrews, Magdalena sings of her love for Christ and St Cecilia is martyred because she will not renounce her faith. Their stories are told through dramatic recitative, interspersed with choral and instrumental commentary and spoken narrative. While Judith’s story is the most developed, with many sections and variations, the others have individual character. Magdalena’s relatively short song is introduced by the vocal interlude, which mentions “scented oils”, thus enhancing, figuratively, her odour of sanctity. The section about St Cecilia is bright and defiant, like the flames which devour the saint’s body, but not her soul. Towards the conclusion, the harpsichord, breaking from continuo, sings in joyous cadenza.

Although the text was in Latin, the stories themselves aren’t hard to follow, and the work as a whole is propelled by vibrant musical logic, flowing freely from superb performances by the whole Ensemble Correspondances team. Modern performances of Charpentier’s Histoires sacrées were pioneered some years ago by Gérard Lesni and Il Seminario Musicale but there is still much more in this rich vein to be discovered. Sébastien Daucé and Ensemble Correspondances present these three histoires with flair, enhanced immeasurably by Vincent Huguet’s production. Huguet, who worked with Patrice Chéreau, understands the innate human drama in these narratives, though they may be expressed in stylized form. Large objects that resemble rockfaces, such as we see in 17th century depictions of biblical scenes, including symbolic olive trees. The idea that painting, or art, should be “realistic” is actually quite recent, and didn’t apply in Charpentier’s time. The simplicity of the sets also means that they can be moved quickly and quietly, without interrupting the flow of performance. Colours are added by lighting effects. Thoughtfully, the designers made use of the configuration of the building itself, using one of the high windows behind the stage to let light shine in “from above” as so often happens in devotional painting. As daylight faded to night, nature itself became part of the narrative. The singer’s movements also reflected those in religious painting – hands raised and pointed, directing attention away from the singers as themselves to the stories being told. Altogether a remarkable experience. How fortunate we were that Sébastien Daucé has brought top quality, cutting edge performance practice to London.

Anne Ozorio, Opera Today

 

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